Meet Jed - the wonderful mushroom man. "Whilst working at Rochelle I had the pleasure of meeting Jed. One evening during service Jed popped his head over the counter, ‘’ I’ve got a mushroom delivery for you’’ he said. I’d never seen such a beautiful array of wild mushrooms, and for him to just be giving them to the restaurant was mind boggling. After chatting and hearing more about Jed’s work, he sat down for dinner with his pal. Angus (fellow chef) and I then cooked the entire menu for them, plus a few extras!" (Lulu Cox)
“I’m what you would call an amateur mushroom hunter, and so far I haven’t killed myself or killed any other person,”
- John Cage
Every mushroom forager has a different reason for walking into a wood or field, but all, no matter how “professional”, have to deal with a very real problem: will I kill or poison myself, my loved ones or members of the public, simply because I wasn’t informed enough or careful enough whilst picking my haul? I’ve often wondered why I chose a hobby that has such a huge and potentially catastrophic range of outcomes. I could have picked an xbox, stamp collecting or mastered the baking of sourdough, but no ...
John Cage called himself an “amateur mushroom hunter”, and whilst he is mainly known for his work on music theory, he was no amateur at foraging. He was completely obsessed with mushrooms. He wrote books on the subject, founded the New York mycological society and supplied restaurants with his bounty.
My only guess is that by not claiming to be an expert or a professional, Cage could avoid the complacency often associated with such titles. An amateur must check, check and check again.
In my early twenties, having finished an art degree in London, I returned to Hastings to “pull pints” for a living. At some point I realised I wasn’t painting any more. The well known, repetitive spiral of hospitality, parties and late nights were sending me down a rabbit hole, from which I needed a way out. So one day, whilst in said hole looking for answers (or whilst having an honest and frank discussion with my incredible mum) I concluded I needed a hobby and a change of social group. We might not know how far the rabbit hole goes, but I’ll bet my bottom dollar upon close inspection, fine, white, feathered mycelia were found by both Alice and myself.
So my hobby (mushrooms) and my change of social group (talk to mushrooms), both made sense to me. But how not to die in the process? I stuck my head into as many books (and YouTube videos) on the subject I could, and started to walk. The addict inside me came in really handy at this point. My brain didn’t have to adapt too much to accommodate this new hobby, but what it gained in the process was truly life changing. Every chance I had, I’d find myself on autopilot: trees flying past me, head down, looking, never picking what I saw, just observing and learning. Where previously I found myself going from bar to bar on autopilot (having intended to stay in), I now found myself going from wood to wood on autopilot. All of a sudden, the mundanity of “who had sex with who last night?” turned into the fascination of “why the hell were there so many blushers and no bloody porcini?”.
I asked a chef and forager whom I really respect for his best advice on foraging mushrooms. He told me: “go as often as you can for the next forty years and keep an eye out for blushers”.
At first I thought he was being coy by not sharing his wisdom, but after a while I realised his advice had been spot on. There are no seasons, rhymes or reasons with mushrooms, just the experience you slowly gather as you start the petrifying process of understanding their irregularity. Yes, most of the tasty fungi grow in autumn, but will they grow this autumn?
Mushrooms don’t need to fruit annually like plants- they can pick the year that suits them best- although some mushrooms are more reliable than others. For example, winter chanterelles I find in abundance every year (but I accept that just by writing that statement I will only find a dozen this year!)
By contrast, I’ve only seen handfuls of the horn of plenty over the last three years, but four years ago, I saw them flush out entire forests. Everywhere you looked black trumpets were erupting from the leaf litter and moss. To witness an event like this is like finding treasure whilst digging a pond in your garden, or catching a tench after days of walking downstream without even a flicker of your float.
Filled with the confidence of an easy to identify edible mushroom and checking, checking and checking my books, I started to pick the bloom of trumpets. Each one seemed to have a different bug living inside its horn, but like most of the chanterelle species only slugs would actually want a nibble; the creatures instead were there maybe for refuge or simply because they just couldn’t get out.
I quickly realised that no matter how much their deep, musky flavour went with eggs, I could never eat enough to satisfy my hunger for harvesting this gift from the ground. I visited at least four woods that autumn, finding it hard to walk in places for fear of treading on my mushroom pals and impacting what their mycelium had sent them above ground to do.
Then, with a flap of a butterfly’s wings, I found myself trading what I’d found for my dinner in local restaurants. I loved the timeless exchange of this process, (money and mushrooms have no place together in my head and to this day I still struggle with the concept of trading mushrooms for money) but even more, the joy in the chef’s eyes when they knew their ingredient had come straight from a nearby wood directly into their kitchen.
I knew then that I needed to work in a kitchen so I could feel that same feeling, and somehow- through more luck than judgement- I now run the kitchen in a pub I supplied with mushrooms that year I first became a “forager”.
A “forager”? I am a forager, although I still have to keep an eye out for rabbit holes (the most common cause of death from mushroom foraging is falling over). I still don’t feel I’ve earned the title of amateur though. I’ll endeavour to walk through the seasons every year for the next 40 years, then I’ll get back to you.
“In the summer, in the springtime, The winter, or the fall, The only place I wanna be Is where I can see you smile at me.” Randy Newman, “I love to see you smile”