Fungus among us


It’s mushroom-hunting season

I HAVE A PRETTY good sense of direction but on a recent forage for mushrooms, I got lost. Totally, completely and utterly lost. Being caught in an avalanche is supposed to disorientate you so much you can end up digging down rather than up, and I feel just as confused staring at trees. Well, almost.

Mushroom hunting is a glorious, ancient pastime that has changed not a jot since man first started hunter-gathering. Morels may be a spring-time treat, but our forests are alive at this time of year with all manner of specimens. And there’s more out there than just field mushrooms, wonderful as those are. Think cep, saffron milk caps, pied de mouton. . . you just need to know where to look.

Forest walking is never easy – if your eyes are scanning the undergrowth it is hard to keep an eye on landmarks. I was in a Wicklow wood and came away with a basketful of mighty examples of cep. The only trouble was to get them home in one piece – I could immediately taste them fried in a little butter with garlic and parsley.

Next weekend, Longueville House Hotel in Mallow, Co Cork is holding the second of two autumn mushroom hunts. There are two advantages to taking the managed hunt route: you won’t get lost, and you avoid the small risk of plucking something tasteless or toxic in place of what you think is going to deliver the ultimate mushrooms on toast. There is a third reason, and that is owner William O’Callaghan’s cooking, which has a real sense of place, both in terms of location and of season.

Which is a reason, if one is needed, to give the whole weekend over and stay. There is an overnight package (€235 per person sharing) which includes accommodation and dinner on Saturday night with breakfast the next morning, mushroom hunt and lunch with wine on Sunday.

Mushroom hunting, indeed any foraging, is for me the ultimate in family-focused entertainment. Everyone can join in and while the simple pleasure of free food remains an adult joy, the seeking element appeals to children of all ages.

If the activity appeals but Cork seems too close to home, for which read unpredictable weather, then why not visit for details of a long weekend to Asturias in northern Spain starting next Thursday.

Accommodation is in a small three-star village hotel and the all-in price of €495pps includes a mushroom hunt with local experts, three nights’ hotel accommodation, breakfast, dinners and lunch, coach transport and wine with meals. You will need to book a flight; Ryanair flies direct to Santander.

Mushroom hunters are far more generous than their truffle counterparts in sharing their chosen patches of forest, and it is undoubtedly better to go with somebody who has done it before. There are tricks of the trade and places to look, and what is really exciting about the whole activity is realising just how full a given patch of wood can be when at first it appears to offer nothing.

If you get hooked, try for other hunts and for the all-important kit associated with mushroom hunting. Think dedicated penknife, basket, mushroom guide. And a compass – you just never know.