It may be geeky, but I absolutely love foraging for mushrooms. The sheer variety of species is fascinating; compare this Red Cage (Clathrus ruber) with a common field mushroom (Agaricus campestris).
Some varieties are delicious, some can alter your state of consciousness, and others can kill you quickly and unpleasantly. Though seemingly unimportant, around 90-95% of plants are believed to have a symbiotic relationship with fungi, without which they would be unable to grow nearly as efficiently. Fungi also break down leaf litter and dead wood, so that we are not still tripping over all the dead trees and wading through the seas of dead leaves that have ever fallen.
Learning to identify mushrooms takes time, and if you intend to eat them, some dedicated study is recommended as well as learning from someone who knows what they are doing. That said, the majority of fungi are just inedible, they don’t taste good or are too tough, slimy etc. Only around 20 British species are deadly poisonous, with over half of these being uncommon. Nevertheless, my recommendation is to study these first! Learn them well and try and find them. Then learn the edible species for which, if you did get them confused with a lookalike, the worst that could happen would be a stomach upset, rather than death.
Take things slowly, I studied a variety of mushroom guides over three autumns, going out and just looking at mushrooms before I felt confident enough to start bringing them home to eat. Even now I am cautious; if I can’t be 100 per cent certain from consulting several guides then I don’t try it. That said, over time it does get much easier, a Giant Puffball (Calvatia gigantea) or Cauliflower Fungus (Sparassis crispa) are simply unmistakable.
There are many gourmet mushrooms to be found, some of which command ridiculously high prices commercially. I’m pleased to say that bar one or two species, I’ve found nearly all the major gourmet species in Britain here in the Colne Valley. As for my favourite fungus – it would have to be the Cauliflower Fungus, which looks bizarre but tastes delicious with firm flesh and a nutty flavour that works perfectly fried in butter with walnuts and garlic. I know only one location where it grows around here and I’m not giving it away!