Three festivals every week for a year. MARK GRAHAMgoes mushroom picking
ON A gloriously sunny morning last weekend, while driving past glistening lakes that reflected the mists rising up from the green and lovely fields of Killashandra, it felt like we were driving into a mystical and mysterious place. And we were. This is Border country. The perfect place to spend a morning picking mushrooms.
Killegar, in Co Leitrim, was the setting for the International Mushroom Festival, and it attracted foragers from far and wide. Before the chanterelle hunting could begin, Big Bill O’Dea gave us a few pointers about what we should avoid and what we should pick, ’cep it wasn’t as straightforward as you might think.
The big mushroom enthusiast told the assembled basket-wielding, welly-wearing wanderers that there are varying opinions on whether or not some mushrooms are poisonous, and he gave us contact details for the poison department at Beaumont Hospital in case of emergencies. It turns out mushroom-picking is an extreme sport: if you’re not careful, you could end up in some serious shiitake.
About 25 edible ’shrooms grow wild in Ireland, and about 250 dodgy ones, so that’s a 10-to-one chance of doing yourself damage. Not great odds, so knowledge is power.
There was only one mushroom some of my friends were thinking of when I mentioned where I was going last weekend – and yes, they were there – but another much more impressive fungus stole the show.
I’ve seen toadstools in cartoons and in storybooks, but I never knew they existed in our woodlands in such quantities and in such vivid colour. I wasn’t prepared to be impressed by a mushroom, but this was one of distinction, with a better back-story than Russell Brand’s bedspread. The Fly Agaric is awfully pretty with it’s bright red top and white spots, but it will make you sicker than a bad kebab on your way home after a particularly well-celebrated Arthur’s Day.
A band of Norse ne’er-do-wells known as the Berserkers cottoned on to the fact that it also has hallucinogenic properties that helped drive them doolally out on the battlefield. They used to dose up one of their compadres with water, feed him a fry of the fungus and then they’d all drink his urine before heading off for a spot of skull-breaking and screaming, while their poor buddy barfed into his horned helmet.
These blokes coined the term “berserk” and we also owe the hairy hallucinators the honours for giving birth to the phrase “on the piss”. Word!
KICK UP A STINKHORN
Hallucinogenics aside, festival-goers were treated to steak-and-mushroom pies, soup, recipes and a cook-off using the foraged fungi. I enjoyed all these sideshows and the day out in the woods collecting the various odd-shaped things, but more than anything else, I enjoyed finding out about the hairy hordes drinking each other’s urine to get out of their bins. Who was the first fella to find out how this worked and how did he explain his discovery, let alone get his buddies to try it? Probably the same fella who first licked a frog and got a buzz off it.
There is a mushroom in our woods called a stinkhorn that releases a smell similar to rotting flesh. Would you be surprised if I told you that a few of them ended up in my basket? It takes many babywipes to wipe away stinkhorn stench.
Safe travels, don’t die.