If fungi were to be in a movie it would be directed by Wes Anderson. Mysterious entities firmly implanted in the realm of the unconventional and unknown. An alien intelligence which only present to human senses, a small percentage of their lifeforce. Complex, beautiful, quirky and magical with layers which venture to firmament heights and below into the layered depths of Earth. The nature of their primary role as faciliators and operators in the ultimate Internet of Everything is still not completely understood. We do know this: without them we would all be screwed.
What are mushrooms exactly?
Neither plant nor animal, fungi defy categorisation and demand one of their very own but are situated closer to animals than plants. There are over 3.5 million estimated species which includes molds, yeasts, and lichens. They are not only pivotal in building soil through decomposition but they also create direct communication channels between other living beings, most obviously the plant kingdom. They do lots of other things beside. Some of which we can only wildly guess at as they begin to unfold their secrets. And we sit up to pay attention.
Odd beneficial flowers
Mushrooms are the fruiting body of the mycelium network which mostly operates underground. Within this incredible life support network many different species work together. Some of them produce incredible flowers which are either edible, medicinal or both. Mushrooms present a divine gauntlet: often the amount or dose one can take is like playing Russian Roulette. Unwanted consequences may or may not include illness and even death from incorrect use. This is why they get a bad rap, and are often treated with deserved wariness by the meek.
Life beyond your standard issue button mushroom
For a couple of generations now, city folk have become conditioned to recognising and acquiring food in a retail setting. Usually a supermarket. For the most part urban environments are cut off from nature and people have become disconnected from growing and foraging for food. Life is busy. Space and time are limited. Before this great disconnect occurred we all grew, foraged and knew how to preserve our food. Those who did not, didn't survive.
This reliance ultimately reduces supply and demand depending on what corporate monopolies dictate. Thereby limiting variety and reducing genetic biodiversity. This has a flow on effect back to the land and eco-system beyond ours. That range slowly diversifies and expands however there are so many more untapped varieties which broaden our palate simultaneously treating body and mind. This applies to fruit & veggies as well. For your average suburban Australian however, shrooom knowledge doesn't usually extend beyond the humble button mushroom. Or maybe a whacky omelette in Bali that one time! Merely the tip of a very delicious and beneficial iceberg.
Know your mushrooms!
There are over 600 species of truly edible mushroom worldwide and lots more which are edible, but only once.... The number one rule for foraging mushrooms is positive identification. Never ever eat a mushroom unless you know what it is! This isn't always clear as there are a few wolves in sheep's clothing depending on the species. There are many indicators including appearance, location, and growing conditions to help create an informed guess but often the only foolproof method is a sporeprint. Which takes a little time and preparation.
You can't beat local knowledge. Best ways to implement this are:
- Adopt a pet mycologist
- Join a mycology or foraging group. Diego Bonetto runs wonderful foraging workshops which include mushrooming in NSW both in the city and regionally. If you're elsewhere do some research and track down a local workshop or group to go adventure with for a day or more.
- Purchase a field guide. At the top of my mycology bookshelf is A Field Guide to Australian Fungi - Bruce Fuhrer. It's pretty good, but by no means definitive. Nothing is because there are so many undiscovered species.
- Use an online ID service - there are a couple of great options. When out on the field I use iFungi AU by Maab Labs: available for both Android and Apple users and have found it really useful and a WIP which relies on verfication and engagement by the citizen science community. I love it because it is local and most of the others are Northern Hemisphere centric. However Mushrooom Identify - Automatic is really good and has an offline scan mechanism [beta] which is cool.
Reclaiming lost traditions
One of my fondest childhood memories is foraging cow paddocks along the wild Hakatere sea cliffs with my Granddad Rex and collecting baskets of almost black, umber stained horse mushrooms. We would carry them home, grinning from ear to ear, expertly weaving back between the cow pats. Once home, they'd steep in an oversized jam pan with butter to be savoured immediately on toast. The rest were preserved in olive oil with lashings of salt & pepper for later.
I wish you happy hunting amongst the gentle much maligned bovines! They are truly the field mushroom lovers' friend before graduating to pine forests for delicious Milky Saffron Cups and Slippery Jacks. Thus the journey and spiral into Alice's rabbithole begins.
Grow your own
If this is more of an adventure than you're ready to commit to right now, all is not lost! The surest method to ensure a reliable food supply once you've ironed out the kinks is to grow your own. Food security starts with you being in charge.
Opting out of a centralised model means you're not beholden to supply chain issues outside of your control. We all know and understand the benefit and joy of producing our own food. Not just for our tastebuds, tummy and physical health, but for our souls too [see Ishka's wise words on that]! Once the infrastructure is laid down you're ready to go and grow whatever/whenever your heart desires. This includes mushrooms! Go be fruitful and multiply. We can even help you get started...