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Archive for April, 2012

The field mushroom, Agaricus campestris

The field mushroom (Agaricus campestris) is easy to get right: when genuinely pre-armed with the right knowledge (see list below), identification can be easy; when taken home it is so similar to its domestic cousin (the ‘common’ mushroom, Agaricus bisporus) that it is easy to cook (if a bit moister); and this then makes it easy to serve even to people who would otherwise abstain from a wild fungus. That said, it can also be relatively easy to get wrong.

The death cap mushroom (Amanita phalloides), which kills more people worldwide than any other, looks a bit like a field mushroom. Recent deaths in Canberra, and in other documented cases with Asian foragers, can be attributed to the similarity of the death cap to the Asian paddy straw mushroom (Volvariella volvacea) more than to field mushrooms, but confusion with field mushrooms has also occurred. The yellow staining mushroom (Agaricus xanthodermus) might also catch you out and make you sick although at least not dead. The literature suggests that there are a few more similar types that occur in Australia like the European blusher (Amanita rubescens), but it remains that with the right precautions, it is certainly possible to distinguish these from field mushrooms. With the overriding maxim ‘if in doubt, go without’ I am now confident in a field mushroom using the following checklist (this is NOT all you need to know, but should hopefully help):

Harvested field mushrooms

  • It looks like a common mushroom, albeit maybe larger, with an essentially white top that may get grey-brownish with age but not any type of yellowish and certainly not at all greenish. Richard Mabey, in the foraging bible Food for Free, suggests that the best place to study for identifying field mushrooms (presumably excluding being alongside an experienced gatherer) is at the mushroom shelf in the grocers.
  • It is growing in a paddock where herbivores crop the grass and enrich it with manure (most commonly cows, but also horses, sheep and I’ve even done well where kangaroos do the job) – not always the case (lawns can also have them), but a safe precaution.
  • There are a few of them in the same area and which can be seen to show that the mycelium (the underground fungal network from which the mushrooms are just fruiting bodies) is in the dirt under grass and not associated with tree roots. It is probably easiest to just have no trees nearby, particularly introduced ones, and especially but not exclusively oak;
  • The gills are at the very lightest a pinkish brown in the youngest ones and definitely a dark brown in older specimens, and when pressed on paper, the ‘spore print’ is also dark (white gills and spore print are a characteristic of death caps as well the ‘destroying angel’ (various other Amanita spp.) that occurs in other parts of the world).
  • The stipe (or stem) is white with a single thin ring of skin where the cap once attached. It definitely does not have a sheath at the base;
  • When the stem is cut it stains at most faintly red-brownish and definitely not yellow (as in the yellow staining mushroom), nor pink and not at all blueish (like the powerfully hallucinogenic ‘gold top’ magic mushroom of warm humid cow fields, Psilocybe cubensis);
  • When cut, and also importantly after some time stored, it does not have a notable smell (death caps are described as smelling from ‘honey sweet’ to ‘objectionably sweet’ and yellow staining mushrooms as ‘phenolic or soapy’ especially at the base and noticeably with cooking).

Driving in to the cabin last weekend, a few white buttons were showing in a neighbour’s paddock – in a corner where cows often congregate and therefore manure. Speaking to another neighbour I suggested they would likely reveal themselves to be field mushrooms and that I would get them on the way out; he added that he was entirely certain they were field mushrooms and that he’s been eating them from there for years. On the way out they had opened up ready for harvest. I cut them, check for a ring but no sheath, dark brown gills, dark spore print, no odour, no staining and general similarity to button mushrooms.

In the past, before I had gotten the mushrooming bug, I have gone past many mushrooms I thought were probably field mushrooms but left them appropriately untouched because probably was as close my knowledge could get me. I have since armed myself with enough knowledge to confidently take at least the most obvious. My first field mushrooms were on the farm where my father grew up. The most recent before these were at the farm my mother grew up on. I grew up in the city, but for my son at least, his first field mushrooms were from the land he will hopefully grow up with. Last Monday, in a vegie bolognaise with noodles.

Field mushrooms before harvesting – the right gills, stem and staining yet to be confirmed

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The eerie light of a dive torch underwater

Night snorkelling (or scuba diving) for me takes one of those logic over instinct leaps of faith where little over half my mind that says ‘do it’ triumphs over the rest that sees the idea as crazy. As your head dips below the surface, you scan frantically with dive torch and eyes to ensure that some unknown horror isn’t right there already waiting for you. But there are just slowly moving fish, half confused and seemingly half hypnotised by the narrow rod of light coming from your hand; a thick misty underwater light sabre though of little defensive utility. It seems like there are fewer fish than in the day although that might just be a sampling bias as all you can see is limited to that one beam of visibility. You stay close to your partner, so that there is at least one other direction where you at least know what is there. Keeping to shallowish water you slowly but surely gain confidence in the logic that it is safe, fascination takes its hold, and you are free to roam the bay.

The fish are mostly different than in the day – goatfish, eel-tailed catfish, those orange ones with the big eyes, green moray eels and the one to always hope to see, the crested horn shark (Heterodontus galeatus), snaking along the bottom after the nocturnal grazing invertebrates. Sea urchins for example, and they are out on almost every bit of exposed rock, mowing down anything that grows. These are in fact the reason that so many places you might snorkel around Sydney are like undersea deserts – North Bondi, Camp Cove, Little Bay, Clovelly. With many of their predators diminished for various reasons by us, many places are all out of whack with these urchins, especially the long-spined one, Centrostephanus rogersii. At the shoreline where we enter the water it is a fairly delicate negotiation to even get in without treading on one, and the same getting out. So there at the end of the snorkel, I prise two off the rock and gingerly exit with them cupped against my wetsuit with a gloved hand.

Sea urchins with the green-tinged iridescence of their spines showing in shallow water

It is, strictly speaking, illegal to do this where I do it because it is within the Bronte-Coogee Aquatic Reserve, and I know it. But I also know that it is not just a harvest that the ecosystem there can bear, but one that it would benefit by were it done enough to actually make any difference. The only invertebrates that can still be taken in the Reserve are a key urchin predator, lobsters, the result of lobbying by the fisheries industry, whose lobster pot buoys can often be seen offshore. Two sea urchins for me are poached with a clear conscience, and hopefully full of roe.

Two urchins (Centrostephanus rogersii) in the bucket, their fate sealed

Sea urchins are a remarkably underutilised resource in Australia, despite being popular in the countries of origin of many Australians like Polynesians (who call it kina) and many from the Mediterranean. Tasmanians would no doubt like to see this change, with our NSW species invading them with kelp-devastating consequences – something put down to a combination of climate change and lobster overfishing. They are a delicacy you may pay top dollar for in a Japanese restaurant (called uni by them) but still recoil from with distaste at the idea of getting your own. And despite their appearance of vicious defence, it is a reasonably easy thing to do.

With gloved hands and a meat cleaver or whatever is your biggest knife (blunt or allowed to become so is best), you simply work around the shell (properly known as a ‘test’) trying to crack it like you might a soft boiled egg, similarly doing it high up one end (towards the opening). Snipping a section out around the opening with kitchen shears is another option. You then lift off the top and hope to expose the perfectly radially symmetrical insides intact. All of this has to be done very delicately as the roe inside are really very fragile. These roe are otherwise known as ‘coral’ because roe implies they are eggs when they are in fact gonads that could be either male or female. With care and some luck you should have exposed five orange segments of coral that you can gently lift out with a teaspoon. Rinse these, again, gently, to remove any broken bits of spines, guts or half digested seaweed. With perhaps just a squeeze of lemon (or the infinite variety of offerings online), you are ready to go.

The test opened with coral ready to remove

Urchin roe has become a taste of night snorkelling for me now, rinsed with lemon juice and laid on squares of buttered bread. When I am back home, salty skinned and still buzzing from what was at stages an adrenalin-flavoured outing. Spines may still be moving on the test and my hair still wet by the time I am done, it is as fresh as that. With a glass of white wine, perhaps what was left in the bottle from mustering up some Dutch courage for the event in the first place, and I am a happy forager.

The final product – sea urchin (Centrostephanus rogersii) roe with a squeeze of lime

See also: The Gourmet Forager,

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