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, local eating and wild foraging are more popular than ever. We also have increased commercial harvesting of wild mushrooms for the gourmet restaurant and foodie sector.

a beautiful basket of edible fungi gathered locally APP7157 © Alison Pouliot

Are foraging and fungi conservation uncomfortable bedfellows? Yes and no.

As Alison said in her short talk at the Surly Goat, and in the book “foraging in Australia is increasing whether we like it or not”.

Wild mushrooming thus sets the standard of a “new Australian approach” – combining both ‘slow mushrooming’ and ‘ecological foraging’ which reduce poisoning risk and harm to the environment.

Alison and Tom believe that the interest in wild foraging is an opportunity. The concept of slow mushrooming advocates “a fungal apprenticeship of sorts”. Wild foraging also builds people’s skills of seeing, appreciating and simply being in nature – which surely is a good thing!   “It makes sense for foragers to embrace fungus conservation to ensure not just the survival of their favourite patch but all fungi and the ecosystems they inhabit”

The book itself!

Wild Mushrooming is beautifully illustrated throughout with Alison’s luminous photography – the photos are a wonderful combination of beauty and scientific illustration. I thought I knew Amanita muscaria quite well (the fly agaric – red and white mushroom) but I was stunned to see the variation in form, texture and colour in this species (p 31). I was also very taken by the food photography accompanying the recipes at the end of the book. Make sure you read Alison’s contribution – her warm sense of humour on display there!

Barbecued saffron milkcaps with olive oil, lemon and herbs – recipe by Fofi Christou © Alison Pouliot

You might be tempted to go straight to chapters 8 and 9 – ‘poisonous fungi’, and ‘edible fungi and their toxic lookalikes’ respectively but chapters 4 and 5 are just wonderful!

These two chapters are the “fungal apprenticeship” part of the book, where the authors calmly and kindly provide “an impression of the sorts of attributes to consider when reading species descriptions and using species keys”. So much about being a field naturalist is about “getting your eye in” – learning to see the features of a plant, animal or indeed fungus. Detail in nature is amazing, and almost exponential – the more you look, the more detail there is.

I have had the pleasure and privilege of taking people along a similar journey – but with birds! At first it seems an insurmountable challenge to identify the birds we see around us, but I always try to encourage beginners by saying “you already know so many birds – kookaburras are a big forest kingfisher, then there are various parrots, ducks, and owls, and maybe honeyeaters and fairy-wrens”. Starting from this broad approach, we can then drill down and start looking at the detail.

In birds we separate into families based on evolutionary relationships, chapter four introduces us to the use of “morphogroups” for fungi – agarics, coral fungi, jelly fungi and puffballs. This short romp through the morphogroups is quite heavy in scientific language. Chapter four uses the terms pileus and stipe throughout – but these terms are explained in the following chapter. Could chapter four and five have been swapped? I am thinking that pileus and stipe would be terms that Alison and Tom would be sooo familiar with – in the same way that I can’t quite comprehend someone has never heard the word ‘cormorant’. For the record – the pileus is the mushroom’s cap, the stipe is the stalk. There is a very helpful glossary at the book’s end, so bear that in mind!

As a life-long science buff and field naturalist myself, I would love to hear what a permaculture enthusiast or wild forager without a scientific background has to say about Wild Mushrooming. How did they use the book? Did it help them embark on the identification process with ease?

Until now, books on fungi have focused on describing species, but not so much on the process of identifying them. Wild mushrooming is a wonderful primer on the world of fungi and is a welcome and vital addition to any fungus-lover’s bookshelf, and highly recommended.

Many thanks to Alison for reviewing this review and supplying the wonderful images! For a fungi feast for the eyes – see Alison’s website   To buy your very own copy of Wild Mushrooming hop online here. 🍄