As a young child I went on a walk with my family in the woods, hotdog in hand, mustard jumbo corduroys on leg, velcro trainers on foot and fluffy hat on head, with my big brother by my side. We happened upon two fly agarics - the red and white mushroom synonymous with death among Western cultures - and we crouched next to them, chowing down on our hotdogs without a care in the world. My mum would have said something like ‘don’t touch those, boys, they will make you very poorly!’. A photo of this encounter has been framed at my mum’s house ever since, and throughout my life we have often commented on the juxtaposition of children happily eating alongside supposedly deadly mushrooms.
A good twenty years later, a culinary entanglement with gourmet mushrooms attracted me to the concept of foraging, but a cultural apprehension whirled inside me. What if I got it wrong? Would it really be worth it? How could I discern the difference between lifely and deadly?
Eventually, I saw no harm in giving it a go. At the very least it would be a scenic stroll in the countryside. I set off, hotdogless, carrying a basket interwoven with hope and trepidation, and a few hours later I had 5 or so species ready to properly identify at home. I remember refraining from eating any other food until I was able to thoroughly wash my hands to remove any of the devilish mycotoxins - a sure symptom of my concern.
After triple-checking, some of them passed every ID point - such as their colour, texture, gill features, scent, spore print and more - and so I hesitantly introduced what I hoped to be field mushrooms and meadow waxcaps into a hot pan with a knob of butter. Evidently, I survived, and they were delicious. Curiosity had killed the cultural cat, and wild foods had made it onto the menu.
A similar situation unfolded when I became interested in fermentation. Culture repeatedly tells us that mould is the enemy, whereas many types of fermentation use it as an indispensable catalyst for flavour generation. Could I really eat something that I’d left out for days or weeks or months? Again, I had to dig deep, educate myself, and eventually face the fuzz and turn knowledge into wisdom.
Nowadays, foraging and fermenting are meditations for me - they offer time to be present with nature’s complexity and unpredictability, and remind me to hold any expectations loosely and meet the unknown with openness. I’m filling my wild and microbial food index one curious chin scratch at a time, smiling back at the murmuring cultural narrator that once condemned these experiences.
I often remind myself that humans used to forage their entire diet, and that a brave soul had to risk their life playing Forager’s Roulette with every unknown species, using their intuition and senses to improve their odds, with each outcome contributing to an accumulated knowledge of the edible treasures of their bioregion.
As it turns out, fly agaric mushrooms are not so deadly after all. In their raw form they are toxic and psychoactive, although this hasn’t curbed their use in small quantities - their hallucinatory effects have found utility in shamanic rituals in Siberia for centuries or even millennia. But even better yet, when boiled to remove their toxins, they are safe to fry, pickle or prepare the same way you would any other mushroom. I bet they are great on top of hotdogs!
Rob Russell is Co-founder of Canopi.