Comedian and food-fiend Jessica Fostekew puts her mouth where others fear to tread. A celebration of eating: from posh nosh to kebab shops to stuff that’s been on the floor. This week, Jess is a funghi to be with.
Am I middle class? Well, I’ve been mushroom foraging.
Kind friends clubbed together for my birthday and got me an ‘edible walk’ in the New Forest. It was me and a group of 12 other fleece-clad food-nerds. Our guide was John. A professional outdoor geek whose over-arching trope was humility. When it came to identifying ‘shrooms, we were never to get cocky. What with the threat of death, etc, if you get it wrong. In John’s words: “I’m not a mushroom whisperer.”
We set out into the ancient woodland and struck fungal gold before we even got out of the car park – a ‘white saddle’. Nationally scarce but locally abundant, it looked like something an underground alien sneezed up. Edible? Edible.
Next, we met a giant field mushroom called ‘The Prince’. He looked like a much bigger, sexier version of a normal field mushroom. Just like the other ‘Prince’ looks like a much smaller, sexier version of a normal singer.
We learned should never wash mushrooms, they’re too porous, just wipe them. If they smell of almonds that’s good. If they smell of radish, fish or cocoa that’s bad. And when mushrooms are poisonous they can be so deadly. We found one which simultaneously kills you in 14 different ways. Like an Antony and the Johnson’s song.
Now I think about it, perhaps some of my companions weren’t food-people at all, but budding murderers? Exciting.
I discovered mushrooms were fruit and there are three types. Ones which live in a mutually beneficial relationship with what they’re living on. Ones which only live on dead things which they help decompose. And ones which kill what they’re living on. There’s a sci-fi plot in there somewhere.
On the delicious side we met mustard yellow chanterelles and a ‘bay bolete’ which looked like a glossy wooden doorknob. We found a ‘cauliflower’ growing from the base of a huge pine like a piece of soggy coral. It smelled incredible, of pepper and spice.
On the scarier side we found a ‘scleraderma’, a cute looking, white ball, which, when cut in half revealed a terrifying jet black middle. Like some sort of horror-fig. We even found creepy lactating ‘shrooms, seeping white rancidness.
The most appalling thing we found was a ‘stinkhorn’. Smelling of puke, covered in a head of green puss it stuck out of the moss like a zombie’s willy. *Wretches*. It’s what we were all thinking.
Hoovering-wise, we found an exciting ‘beefsteak mushroom’ growing from an oak stump. It bleeds when you cut it. We ate it raw and it tasted like nothing I’d ever had before: sharp and creamy all at once. Imagine grapefruit with vanilla yogurt but in waxy, solid form. I loved it.
On the way to our camp to get cooking, we tried some wood sorrel we found. Tart and citric, it made my mouth burst out watering for a while after. Wonderful. Moments like that, surrounded by autumn rusting trees, our path all sun and dew dappled made the day glorious.
Once at our camp we warmed up with a sip of John’s homemade ‘beech leaf gin’ or ‘nuyu’. It tasted of friendly witches, sweet and herby.
We learned to fry mushrooms. Treat them like the protein-packed-with-water that they are and start cooking them dry. Only when there is steam rising and they’re on the verge of burning, should you add a drizzle of oil. The smell was mouth-blowing.
We cooked the lightest, meatiest ‘shrooms into a messy omelette. We ate it with fresh bread and oatcakes. Rich, hearty and wholesome, we ate the perfect amount not to fill up, but to feel fed. The mushrooms had such incredible flavours which all came through. Nutty; creamy and earthy. It tasted like being held and then being picked up and twirled around, by an ent.
Cooking up the risotto.
With the darker, dirtier ‘shrooms we made risotto. Whole garlic cloves, chilies and fresh rosemary went in. The rice cooked through, soaking up two bottles of pinot grigio and then last, and most, the mushrooms. These tasted even bigger, bolder and moodier. Some of the flavours there were woody, peppery and some almost caramel. We finished every last speck in the pan.
Finally, we realised we’d forgotten the Prince. We fried him up on his own. Jesus fucking Christ. It was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever hoovered. I only had a slither but it was so full on. It tasted of a glorious eye-popping combination of charred, almost marmitey, oily darkness. Like a mushroom concentrate. Lush.
If you love mushrooms and you’ve never foraged and then immediately eaten wild ones, you’re missing out. But please do it under the supervision of someone qualified to keep you alive.
Jessica Fostekew is a writer, comedian, actor, law degree-waster, sister, daughter and beard-fan with an unabashed food infatuation.