The mushroom revolution – Fionnuala Ward on edible fungi

Fungi have been around for a very long time

Everyone has their standard purchases each week. What goes into the weekly shop and what doesn’t. As a species, we may occasionally break out. We may sometimes try something new. But the truth is, were a bunch of aliens to land on our doorsteps tomorrow morning, notebook in hand, with queries as to what the various inhabitants of this planet liked for breakfast or dinner or tea, we could fill them in on the spot. And while they were busy scribbling those items down in page after page, we could wax lyrical about whatever it is we can’t abide into the bargain.

For the most part we are creatures of habit and we stick to a routine.

And for me, it’s mushrooms.

I put mushrooms into everything. When I’m following a recipe, and it comes to that part where I need to start frying up some veggies, I’ll toss in a bunch of mushrooms without giving it a second thought. Without even glancing at the page.

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Mushrooms are delicious on toast. They are delicious off toast. They are delicious as a starter. They are delicious as a side. They are delicious as an incidental ingredient or as the star of the show. It’s true that they have yet to muscle their way into the dessert stakes but, let’s face it, it’s only a matter of time.

Mushrooms are, of course, members of the fun-loving, fungal family and as such the mafiosi of the plant world. Foraging the forest floor for nettles or berries or a little bit of this or that doesn’t generally run the risk of a high stakes entry into your local A&E. But mess with the wrong mushroom and a dice with death can unexpectedly come into the mix.

Fungi have also been knocking around for a very long time. They were here long before us. Long before dinosaurs. Long before trees.

So they know how things work. In fact, to all intents and purposes, they’re the ones who make things work .

Only recently, it’s been discovered that trees spend a lot of their time yammering away with each other. They share goodies in the form of nutrients, warn about invading species, plan to kill off an annoying next-door neighbour by dumping toxins into their back garden – your average coffee morning stuff.

They might even, in a laudable moment of self-sacrifice (and when it’s clear the end is nigh) unleash the very last drop of their resources deep into the earth in order to prop up their buddies.

And they do this through fungi. A fungal network known as – and no doubt whoever came up with this term went out into the world that day with the smuggest of smug smiles – the Wood Wide Web.

Of course, fungi are far too smart to take part in this endeavour out of the goodness of their heart. They have an agenda here. They do indeed provide the infrastructure for these messages to be sent. And by all accounts, they even sweeten the deal by throwing in a little good stuff of their own. But all the while, they’re brazenly and openly stocking up on sugars that the trees are only too happy to offload.

So a win for everyone involved.

Now, it’s fair to say that any living thing that’s managed to manipulate the world around them to the point where they spend their time, snuggled next to the root of a tree, munching on their species’ equivalent of Maltesers deserves our respect.

Well, there’s that and also those absent-minded foragers ending up in A&E.

After all, what have cauliflowers done to further life on this planet? Would your common or garden carrot negotiate with a species tens, hundreds, maybe thousands of times its size in such a similar manner? Has a cabbage ever come to the conclusion that enough is enough and laid waste to a band of forest-floor afficionados?

So the next time you empty some mushrooms onto the cutting board and are about to set to with a knife, take a moment.

Concentrate on the job at hand, keep your wits about you and promise nothing.

These guys have outsmarted us. They’ve outplayed us. And we all know they’ll out-survive us.

And if it ever did get to the point where those aliens ended up hanging around a little longer than expected, there’s no question who’d make it to the top of the queue. You know, to thrash out some kind of mutually-agreeable arrangement and possibly engage in a little bartering on the side.

And as for us, we’d be outside the door.

Waiting. Just waiting.