Thursday, 4 September 2008

A Nice Green Leaf: (Dangerous) fruits of the forest


The British are famously reluctant to go out in autumn and pick mushrooms, particularly in comparison to our continental neighbours. This week's story about Nicholas Evans, author of the Horse Whisperer, just confirms all of our fears of the unknown dangers that lurk in the forest: he was poisoned by eating Cortinarius mushrooms, Deadly Webcaps, that he probably confused for delicious edible Chanterelles.

The worrying part of the story is that Evans is described in The Independent piece by a friend as a "real outdoorsman". Commenters on The Times site were quick to jump in as if confusion between fungi could never happen, but consulting Roger Phillips's encyclopedic photographic guide to Mushrooms, I find that the Webcap has killed people many times before in Eastern Europe as well as causing countless cases of both reversible and irreversible kidney failure.

The only real surefire way of avoiding poisoning is the American technique: as Stephanie of Bristol says on The Times site, "Wow. In American we are taught to never, ever, EVER eat wild mushrooms, an attitude that is more consistent with the dominant Health & Safety culture over here." 

The American suspicion of forest fruits doesn't just stop at mushrooms. Slate gardening writer Constance Casey revealed yesterday that US diners won't even eat blackcurrants, finding them too strong and earthy in flavour. She gives a funny account of trying to serve them at a dinner party, but from her article I imagine Americans are possibly also put off by the idea of our English teeth, and Ribena's role in their downfall. 

Yet blackcurrants are currently being touted in Britain as our own native superfood, crammed with antioxidants and undemanding to take care of, staying relatively small in size and able to thrive and fruit in light shade. In the meantime, if you go down to the woods today do not follow this advice sent into The Times in 1850: unless you are a married woman, dears.

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