Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Mushroom surprise: a cautionary tale

It's fungus foraging time in this part of Dorset, with crocodiles of woodland treasure hunters trudging up to Bluebell Hill armed with baskets, a reliable guidebook and a heart full of hope.

They are searching for the penny bun, the name we give to the Cep, that most prized of mushrooms, which lurks on the forest floor beneath ancient beech trees.

As country children growing up, my four siblings and I stuck mostly to field mushrooms on the farm, cursing the townies for getting to them before we did.

These days, the Sunday and Saturday supplements are bursting with tales of forages and forays, as if everyone's doing it. Last year, I was lucky enough to go with a friend on a fungus foray with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's expert John Wright, who knows a thing or two about mushrooms. He wrote the excellent Mushrooms: River Cottage Handbook No 1. You can hear about our foray here.

John is as delighted with a close-up inspection of a tiny orange toadstool sprouting from a cow pat as he is slicing off a piece of beefsteak fungus from a tree trunk and then taking it home for tea.

He knows what he is looking for. He knows what is edible and what is not.

If in doubt, let it lie.

The same thought came to my mind on Sunday as Mr Grigg lay sprawled out on the sofa, going greener and greener. Let him lie, I said to myself, because there was no way I was going to move him without kicking up a stink. Earlier that day, he had tizzled himself up a nice breakfast of chorizo and slivers of giant puffball, an edible and unmistakable fungus.

'Would you like some?' he asked, wafting the pan under my nose.

The greatest of all my senses is smell, closely followed by taste (which, of course, is exquisite). I can smell milk that has gone off even before it makes the life-changing decision to give up being wholesome. I knew I was going to give the Puffball Surprise the cold shoulder after catching a whiff of it from 60 paces. Just the smell of it made me feel sick.

Which is exactly what Mr Grigg felt as we were heading up the motorway for a 90th birthday party in Bristol several hours later.

'I've got to pull over,' he said, leaping out of the car on the hard shoulder before he had even put the handbrake on.

Sick as a dog, his skin went alternate shades of green and yellow, he was hot and cold and his pulse was racing. We spent the next hour-and-a-half in the hospital accident and emergency department, in between the waiting room and the lavatory. I could picture him in there blowing up like a puffer fish or Violet Beauregarde from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory while the campfire song Green and yeller rushed around on speed inside my head.

As it was, he made a full recovery. But I am just so pleased he didn't have his puffball breakfast a day earlier. On the Saturday we had celebrated Mr Loggins' special birthday up a creek on the River Dart in a 12-man canoe.

Still, at least he wouldn't have been without a paddle.

That's about it.

Love Maddie x


  1. Violet Beauregarde! God love her.

  2. Thank heavens he's OK, although Gail's comment is very amusing :0) x

  3. How awful for your poor Mr Grigg.
    I have a very efficient nose too - and The Great Dane has learned, the hard way, to listen when I offer "I smell mouse" or some other such bit of information.
    I had food poisoning in Chile once, and just wanted to be left at the side of the road to die in peace.

  4. Oh dear. Poor Mr Grigg. And the Word Verification is 'moldsim'

  5. Puffball is ok but I prefer parasols. Perhaps he could be diverted another time? There's less to go off.



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