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Mushroom foraging on Hampstead Heath

The other day, I sought out something a little different to do Instead of my usual Saturday morning spent in bed, reminding myself of the fact that it is just that, a Saturday morning, and I don’t need to get up at some ungodly hour to earn a crust for once. I had decided to enrol myself on a mushroom foraging workshop for the day.

If I’m honest, after a heavy week, I was reconsidering my decision to book the blessed thing in the first place. Thirty quid of hard-earned cash, which I could have spent on a few extra rounds at the pub the night before, woken up a lot later, and not had to walk around Hampstead Heath for three hours. However, I soldiered on and made it to the meeting point for the designated 10am start.

As my fellow foragers arrived with their twee, shaker-esque trugs and baskets, I felt rather embarrassed with my blue plastic stationary box (which I’d hurriedly emptied of the spices I keep in there five minutes before leaving my flat). I also wondered whether I’d underestimated our anticipated harvest as an American forager turned up with an Oxbridge-style bicycle basket.

After coffee and introductions, we headed onto the Heath to commence our foray under the dim glare of the autumnal sun. The first mushroom to be found was only a few yards away from our starting point – we all rushed over, eager to find out if it was edible, clutching our baskets tightly and ready to run off to find more if it was. Our guide for the day, Andy, rolled off its Latin name as if the language of fungi was his mother tongue, and confirmed that this one was a good egg. He talked us through how it could be identified as such and how to cook with it. After this, our efforts stepped up a gear, as we realised that our dreams of hot, buttery, wild mushrooms for supper were more real than we had imagined.

Our search took us through the Heath and into the woods and some of us were luckier than others. To my disappointment, after a couple of hours of hunting, all I had to show for my efforts were two meagre mushrooms rattling around at the bottom of my container. However, just as my hopes were fading we entered a clearing, and I suddenly got lucky as I came across a hoard. The round, beige objects covering the floor were no longer the pebbles and detritus which had plagued me all morning, but fresh, wild, and, most importantly, edible mushrooms. I set about filling my box with as many of the treasures as my greedy little fingers could gather. My find came at just the right time as, shortly afterwards, our forage drew to a close and we started to make our way back to our base, complementing each other on our respective bounty as we walked.

After lunch, Andy gave us an informative insight into the world of fungi, talking us through the many varieties (names like “Hen of the Woods? and “The Charcoal Burner? spring to mind) and the various techniques used in identifying the good from the bad. Here was a man who really knew his stuff, but far from coming across as a boffin or an anorak like many might, somehow, he managed to make fungi funky! The ease with which he had identified our finds proved the depth of his knowledge, and the interest with which he greeted our specimens showed his passion.
After some practical identification exercises in groups, it was 4.30 p.m. and so it was time to go home.

Just before we left, I asked Andy if he’d mind taking a look through my finds to check they were all okay to eat, as there had been occasions where, in blind euphoria, I had thrown mushrooms into my container without getting them checked out en route. My request was soon followed by that of an elderly gentlemen who asked, “Would you mind checking mine – my wife will never speak to me again if these aren’t edible?, to which I could not help retorting with “If they’re not edible, I don’t think she’ll have a choice!?

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