Get a taste for nature on a mushroom foraging course in the New Forest

Learn to tell your boletes from your russulas as you get to grips with fungal families on a one-day mushroom foraging course.

Published 18 Nov 2020, 15:00 GMT, Updated 19 Nov 2020, 15:11 GMT
New Forest mushroom foraging courses with Wild Food UK include a guided walk lasting around 2.5 hours ...

New Forest mushroom foraging courses with Wild Food UK include a guided walk lasting around 2.5 hours and a wild food meal based on what the group has foraged.

Photograph by Getty Images

Having torn off a tiny piece of the purple cap, Marlow Renton places it in his mouth and rolls it around with the tip of his tongue before spitting it out. “Right,” he says, holding out the specimen to the group. “Who wants to nibble a poisonous mushroom?”

It’s not a rhetorical question. Moments later, we’ve all done the same. “Did you all get the burn?” Marlow enquires. For my first taste of a wild mushroom on this fungi foraging course in the New Forest, toxic chilli comes as a surprise, to say the least. Marlow, co-founder of Wild Food UK, had, after all, promised to lead us “from gourmet mushroom to gourmet mushroom”. But the family this mushroom belongs to is, he assures us, one we should get to know. The russulas — easily identified by their flaky gills and crumbly stems — are an abundant back-up when the top-tier options are in short supply. If there’s no strong taste — hot, foetid, curry, spicy — then you’re good to go. Needless to say, what’s left of this one won’t be part of our meal at the end of the day.

Heading into the forest, it’s not long before an excited commotion beneath an oak tree has Marlow running over to confirm we’re in the presence of fungal royalty. With its cartoonish bulbous stem, this baby porcini is instantly recognisable as the cover star of cookery books the world over. It’s one of the boletes, a relatively safe family for novice foragers that contains an abundance of prime edibles. The rule here is “no red [sponge pores under the cap], no blue [oxidisation on cutting the flesh]”. Although this means discarding a few tasty mushrooms, like the lurid bolete, it also means we’ll swerve a few nasty ones, including the ominous-sounding satan’s bolete.

Minutes later, we come across a cluster of baby chanterelles, another unseasonable gourmet discovery. Standing out like buttercups against the mossy path, they smell like apricots, yet their key family identifier is actually the wrinkly, vein-like gills. Its drabber little sister, the winter chanterelle, was the one Marlow had primed us to meet. Steering us into a larch copse where he knows we’ll find it, we spread out in a ragged line like a disorganised forensic team to scour the forest floor for the distinctive yellow twisted stems. At first, there’s nothing, then we see one, then two — suddenly they’re everywhere, forcing Marlow to run around scrutinising each new find. “You’d pay a fortune for them in Borough Market,” he grins.

There’s time for one last gourmet find, the amethyst deceiver, a small, vibrant purple mushroom, groups of which, Marlow tells us, can often be found twisted around each other “like they’re having a disco in the woods”. No sign, though, of any death caps or destroying angels, the pantomime villains of the forest. The sole deadly poisonous specimen of the day, a leathery-looking velvet rollrim sprouting from a tree stump, comes as something of an anti-climax.

When Marlow estimates we’ve hit the 1.5kg limit recommended by the Forestry Commission for educational forays, he starts preparing our valedictory meal. In normal times, we’d commandeer the kitchen of the nearby pub The Red Shoot Inn, but a trestle table and a primus stove in a forest car park feels more appropriate on this sunny autumn day. As we stand in a contented, socially distanced huddle, munching mushroom pasta in a vegan cream sauce, I feel like I’ve made new friends I’m sure I’ll see again. Not so much my fellow novice foragers, but the delicious mushrooms on the plate in front of me.

New Forest mushroom foraging courses with Wild Food UK cost £55 for adults, £27.50 for under-16s and are free for under-12s. They include a guided walk lasting around 2.5 hours and a wild food meal based on what the group has foraged. 

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