Wild Mushroom Foraging (“Big Bill’s Wild Mushroom Hunts”)

As children each Autumn we often went wild mushroom picking. Setting out at the crack of dawn, the dew like little glass beads on the fields, welly clad feet, long strands of meadow grass collected for threading our flat topped treasures, to prevent them from getting bruised. We were told to look near the cow pats because mushrooms always grew close to them (sometimes in them) and were safe to eat! Of course as a child as far as I was concerned these were the only safe wild mushrooms to eat, anything else was poisonous!

We’d arrive home to an ever anxious mother, who was concerned that we had ignored signs warning against entering bull inhabited fields or had been chased by a rifle wielding farmer for trespassing on his land.

The mushrooms would be fried up in butter with a little salt and pepper and served piping hot on warm buttery toast. Heaven!

It was only years later that I realised the varieties of wild mushrooms went way beyond the abundant field mushrooms of my youth. However, my knowledge of wild mushrooms is still minuscule and it was because of this that my family and I decided to take part in a mushroom hunt organised by Bill O’Dea and wife Freda Hoban-O’Dea. We first got to know Freda and Bill through our children’s school as their son is in the same class and ours. It soon became apparent that the ODea’s and ourselves had the same love of all things foodie and sure the rest is history!

Bill O’Dea is a dedicated mycophagist (one who likes to gather and eat mushrooms). He has studied fungi at UCD and attended several workshops and mushroom forays in Ireland and the US. Bill’s greatest boast is that he has been collecting and eating wild mushrooms for over thirty years and still survives to tell the tale. On the hunts he is usually supported by some of Irelands leading experts on Fungi. “Big Bill’s Wild Mushroom Hunts” started in 1996.

The day started off with an introduction to edible and poisonous mushrooms which could have had the result of putting the ‘fear o’god’ into you if you didn’t have your whits about you when out foraging. Bill told us that there are over 5,000 varieties of mushroom in Ireland, with 25 of these as known edibles, 200 of which are toxic and 20 of which are deadly. So you can see it is essential to talk to someone with fungi expertise before embarking on that wild mushroom risotto that you’ve always wanted to try!

However, the aim of the introduction is to enable foragers to identify the edibles from the poisonous mushrooms, and if you come away having learned three new edible varieties, you’ve enriched your larder with three new ingredients until the next foraging season when you can expand on this knowledge further.

This particular mushroom hunt took place on the ground of Avondale House Co. Wicklow, the birthplace and home of Charles Stewart Parnell, one of the greatest political leaders of 19th century Irish history.

So with basket in hand and over 500 acres of forest park land to explore we set about hunting for mushrooms. At first we were all very nervous about picking anything but after a while bravery took hold and we managed to collect quite a basket full which did transpire to be mostly poisonous!!! Who’s coming to my house for dinner ;O)

On return all mushrooms were displayed with like varieties for identification purposes. As you can see this very long table was filled to capacity.

In the meantime, an array of mushrooms were being prepared for a taster lunch to further expand the knowledge of all foraging enthusiasts present. I helped with this prep (in very much a kitchen assistant capacity) for chef, Neil Holden from Matt the Threshers restaurant in Pembroke St.

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I thoroughly enjoyed this part of the day, the mushrooms being served were, yellow legged chanterelles, girolles, king oysters (these were not wild) , blewits (a variety I had never come across before and would have considered poisonous!) ceps, parasol and a variety that Bill picked himself on the day.

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The mushrooms were simply cooked in olive oil, butter and garlic with a sprinkling of salt and pepper, in order for us to taste the true mushroom. Later on some cream and tarragon were added to already tasted varieties such as the chanterelles. This taster lunch was very nicely washed down with a Rioja Crianza and a Sauvignon – Chardonnay from the Ardeche region. All wines are available from The Wicklow Wine Co. in Wicklow town.

Exhausted and yet exhilarated after the long day of foraging, we headed home. I was excited about trying new recipe with a variety of mushrooms or maybe even going back to those of my childhood, wild field mushrooms. Having ferreted through many of my cook books, I came across a recipe by the old faithful Jamie Oliver ‘The Real Mushroom Soup’.

Jamie went for a wide range of mushrooms however, I went with what I could find so here’s my version of his recipe.

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Ingredients:

  • A small handful of dried porcini
  • Olive oil
  • 600g mixed fresh wild mushrooms (I used wild field mushrooms, oysters & ceps), cleaned and sliced
  • 2 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely sliced
  • 1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
  • A knob of butter
  • A handful of fresh thyme, leaves picked
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 litre chicken or vegetable stock
  • 2 tablespoons cream

Method:

Place the porcini in a small dish and just cover with some boiling water, leave to soak. In a large pot, add a good splash of olive oil and allow to get hot, add the prepared mushrooms. Stir around very quickly for a minute, then add the garlic, onion, butter and thyme and a small amount of seasoning.

After about a minute, the mushrooms will release moisture from cooking, this will be a good time to add the porcini, roughly chopped. Strain the soaking liquid to remove any grit, and add it to the pot. Carry on cooking for about 20 minutes until most of the moisture disappears.

Season to taste, and add the stock. Bring to the boil and simmer for around 20 minutes. Next, transfer the soup to a food processor and blend till smooth or to a consistency of your choice (some people don’t like coming across pieces of mushroom in their soup!) , then pour it back into the pot and add the cream, seasoning to taste.

I served this with some buttery toast and a wee swirl of cream on top. It was a hearty meal, bursting with a rich, distinctive, mushroom flavour. One which I’ve come to learn is only achieved when using that of the wild variety, which are available in a range of supermarkets and green grocers. This recipe is definitely worth a try! Enjoy.

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2 Responses to Wild Mushroom Foraging (“Big Bill’s Wild Mushroom Hunts”)

  1. What a grand adventure! I’d be terrified to go on my own.. I’d probably poison myself for sure, I never did pay attention in school, lol! The photo of the table filled with mushrooms is gorgeous! The soup would be amazing with such a variety of mushrooms in it too! xx

    • Rhoda Kirwan says:

      It was a grand adventure Barbara. And like you I would be very cautious about what mushrooms I use when cooking. We were a bit fearful as to what to pick at first but then we just picked everything we saw and asked lots of questions later. We also gave our hands a good scrum before eating lunch. The soup I made was delicious and very rich in flavour, one to try again. R x

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