Wild Mushrooming: a guide for foragers book review

by | Aug 21, 2021 | book review, Fungi, Wombat Forest

As we enjoy a long and stunning fungus season in our southeastern Australian forests, a new book called Wild Mushrooming by Alison Pouliot and Tom May has fruited!

Local eating and wild foraging are increasing in popularity, and yet until now there have been no books dedicated to the practice of finding and eating mushrooms in Australia. The authors’ ‘slow mushrooming’ approach combines safety (as the wrong choice can be deadly), and a sensitive and respectful take on wild harvesting. It also has the potential to turn a locavore into a field naturalist or forest conservationist!

Alison is well known to us in the Wombat Forest and surrounds; an ephemeral delight, as we only see Alison here when the forest is damp and lush. In summer, Alison returns to Switzerland and Europe to pursue her mycology work in the equally damp but oh-so-different European woodlands. I interviewed Alison a couple of years ago for a print edition of Cosmos Magazine – read it here.

Alison’s field workshops are a wonderful mix of science, storytelling and nature investigation,  close to the earth and the deep leaf litter from which mushrooms, or sporophores appear.

But in late June, I attended a different event – Marvellous Mushrooms – a night of fine dining featuring a combination of wild-gathered and cultivated fungi at the Surly Goat, Hepburn Springs. There was still some storytelling by Alison, but the food lovingly prepared by chef David Willcox and his team was the main event.

It is quite a challenge to make a delicious and varied menu with a theme – and I thought David and his team pulled it off with aplomb! My favourite flavour was the pickled blewitt on toast. Finely flavoured and delicate. The pine mushroom ravioli in a mushroom consommé was also wonderful and beautifully set off by an artful addition of some celery leaves and thinly sliced raw button mushroom. I got to try morels for the first time (I had a vego version of the main) – and I have to say I prefer them growing and being gorgeous in the forest!  Strange little wrinkly friends!

As we were served these mushroom delights, one after the other, Alison moved from table to table chatting to people in her warm friendly way. If only I was privy to those conversations! In a workshop setting, you get to hear the questions and answers – and all learn together.

Alison’s brief talk before our first course took us back to the early days in her mycology career, in a small village in Switzerland, watching the three stern mushroom inspectors carefully examine the various fungi that members of the public brought in for the inspectors to identify. Correct identification of fungi takes skill, and the patience to learn these skills.

And for wild foragers – learning these skills are essential. As Alison puts it plainly “when it comes to foraging you are essentially taking your life in your hands.”

The book’s approach differs from other Australian field guides in that it focuses on key species, as “it is better to learn a few edible mushrooms thoroughly – and their toxic lookalikes – than many species superficially.”

Wild Mushrooming aims to reduce the very real risk of poisoning. Alison describes co-author Tom May as “essentially the guy the Poisons unit call at 2 am in the morning asking him to identify mushroom species – in shall we say digested remains?!”

In the daytime, Tom is known as Principal Mycologist at the RBGV National Herbarium and the driving force behind FungiMap,  a not for profit, citizen-science organisation dedicated to furthering the conservation and knowledge of Australian fungi. Like Tom, Alison is a committed and passionate conservationist, and was a founding member of the International Fungi Conservation Society .

Alison is also an erudite and skilled conservation advocate through her writing and photography. Readers of Wombat Forestcare newsletter have read Alison’s beautiful articles for over a decade – a wonderful mix of science, deep ecology and environmental philosophy. I love this one written in the International Year of Forests.

Which brings me to the question – what are two biodiversity conservationists doing writing a book about foraging for mushrooms?

In my experience, a group of people out and about in damp forest with field guides and hand lens are part of a fungal foray. A foray is a lovely word for an investigative walk to gain scientific knowledge – and a prized activity by field naturalists. In fact, in Blackwood, near the Garden of St Erth one particularly fine season I recall seeing multiple groups: the Field Naturalists Club of Victoria, the Ringwood Field Naturalists and the Ballarat Field Naturalists all descending upon that fine patch – taking photographs, uploading sightings on FungiMap – but no foraging!

Full disclosure – I am in this camp – take only photographs, leave only footprints (remember that saying from the eighties?). I never use call playback when birdwatching, I stick to the paths in heavily visited natural areas, and whether I can eat something is not as important to me as its ecological value in the habitat. A foray rather than a forage for me for sure.

In years past, the seasonal fungal foraging I have been most aware of has been mainly confined to two kinds: enthusiastic harvesting of psychedelic mushrooms –Psilocybe subaeruginosa and the autumnal feasts of pine mushrooms and slippery jacks from our pine plantations.

In 2018 Patrick and his son Woody from Artist as Family started a mushroom display at the market – educating the local community about the edibility of our local native species.

Now in 2021