There is a vast range of edible fungi and most will be familiar with the mass-produced tasteless polystyrene masquerading as Agaricos bisporus and its little brown brother, A. bisporus var. hortensis; these were developed from the very delicious field mushroom (Agaricus campestris). Edible mushrooms have been collected since man started chewing nuts and berries.
The Pharaohs valued fungi so highly they decreed they would not be consumed by any other than the royal family. Given the culinary interest in mushrooms one is surprised to realise they have very little to offer in the way of nourishment; the plant is mostly composed of water.
The fear of collecting a poisonous mushroom is sufficient to deter the majority, and considering the consequences of a mistake justified.
The varieties that one will encounter in the main supermarkets have increased considerably over the last few years; we are now able to purchase Shitake mushrooms (Lentinus edodes), containing lentinan, the most powerful natural immune system stimulant and restorative known to science, and very delicate in flavour; used in soups and stews. The indigenous Oyster species (Pleurotus cornucopiae), with its clusters of creamy white brackets, found growing in woodland and under wild shrubs, can be fried and added to omelets or stewed; a real taste of the wild, although this species is now being cultivated commercially.
A fungi that has been a great favourite with Hellenic societies is the Saffron Milk mushroom (Lactarius deliciosus), so named for its taste. They grow in coniferous woods and can be found after the rainy season, should we have any, and they are distinguished from other fungi in that the flesh is granular and breaks off like chalk.
Should you encounter the Fairy Ring Champignon (Marasmius oreades) be careful not to confuse it with Clitocybe family that tends to share the same ground. The former is greatly valued by fungi connoisseurs, but the latter will make you ill.
One of the most popular varieties found in the wild and some shops is the delicious Penny Bun Mushroom (Boletus edulis); it is quite a specimen, growing up to 15cm with a cap measuring 20cm. It has a robust brown/red top that is slightly sticky to the touch, and grows in most kinds of woodland; it is the most commonly eaten wild mushroom.
Alexander McCowan is author of the The World’s most Dangerous Plants