Any novice fungi-forager would be well advised to start with mushrooms that are easy to identify and hard to confuse with other types. For this reason Number One on my list is Hydnum repandum, the Hedgehog Mushroom. It gets its name from the spines which line the underside of its cap. They are soft, by the way, not hard and sharp like real Hedgehog spines.
This is probably my favourite mushroom of all. It has a lovely sweet flavour and good firm texture.
Number Two on my list is Boletus edulis - the Cep or Penny Bun. This was the first wild mushroom type I ate and is still the one I most frequently search for. It is very recognisable too, on account of the distinctive net-like pattern (called "reticulation") on its stipe (stem). The brown "bun-shaped" cap almost always has a white margin too.
Number Three is Cantharellus cibarius - the Chanterelle (aka Girolle). This one is another very sweet-tasting and sweet-smelling one, almost fruity. Some people say that it smells like apricots.Key features are the egg-yolk yellow colour and the complex branching veins on the undersides of the caps. Once seen, never forgotten!
Number Four is Leccinum versipelle, the Orange Birch Bolete. The orange-brown cap and shaggy stem of this mushroom could only really be confused with its close relative the Orange Oak Bolete, Leccinum aurantiacum, which is equally good, but is mycorrhizal with a different type of tree. When cut, the bottom of the stem of this mushroom turns blue-green, darkening to nearly black - a good identifying feature. Don't be put off by this, because the colour fades again, and it is a really nice firm mushroom, almost nutty.
Number Five is Macrolepiota procera - the Parasol Mushroom. This very dramatic mushroom could perhaps be confused with its relative the Shaggy Parasol - Chlorophyllum rhacodes - but there are easy ways to tell them apart if you are in the know. The stipe of the "real" Parasol has a very characteristic snakeskin patterning, which the Shaggy one doesn't. Furthermore, the Shaggy Parasol turns a reddish colour when cut, which the real one doesn't. This mushroom is definitely best eaten young, preferably at the so-called Drumstick stage, before the cap opens out, and the flesh is firmer.
|Parasol mushroom at the Drumstick stage, clearly showing the snakeskin pattern on the stipe|
Number Six is Craterellus tubaeformis, the Winter Chanterelle. This is another hard-to-mistake one, with its distinctive yellow legs! The frilly-edged cap is brown on top, but the underside is grey in all but very immature specimens. I love the flavour of this mushroom, but for me its main attraction is that once you find one, you usually find hundreds more!
Number Seven on my list is Imleria badia, the Bay Bolete. Another good one for retaining its texture when cooked. This one does have a few lookalikes, but it also has some clear distinguishing features, such as the (usually bent) striated stipe that looks almost like grainy wood and always has a lighter-coloured yellowish section at the top, where it joins the cap. The cap colour is a good identifier too - a really deep walnut brown.
|Bay Bolete - upper surface|
|Bay Bolete, lower surface|
Number Eight on my list is Sparassis crispa, the Wood Cauliflower. Bearing a strong resemblance to its vegetable namesake, this fungus is pretty hard to mis-identify. When we ate this (as a baked Wood Cauliflower Cheese) we found the taste pleasant enough, but the texture was a bit rubbery. I have subsequently heard that this can be avoided by deep-frying the mushroom, perhaps in a tempura batter.
Number Nine is Leccinum Scabrum, the Brown Birch Bolete. This one also was one of the first wild mushrooms I ate. It is not hard to find in the area where I live, because we have lots of Birch woods - its favourite habitat. This mushroom is superficially similar to the Cep (in that it is a Bolete of sorts, which means it has pores instead of gills), but it is significantly different too. The most obvious difference is the scabrous (scabby) stipe or stem, which is very different to the reticulated (and usually much fatter) stipe of the Cep. Its pores are white, often with little brown dots, as seen below.
Number Ten is Laetiporus sulphureus - Chicken Of The Woods. I'm not sure why this one is last, because it is a really spectacular fungus, but it's probably because we have only eaten it once (simply because I have only found it in edible condition once!). Again, this dramatic, colourful multi-tiered fungus is hard to mistake for anything else, once you have seen on "in the flesh". We really enjoyed eating it too. I'm not sure it tasted anything like chicken, but its texture was much more meaty than any other mushroom I have ever eaten.
So that's my Top Ten, all ones that are good to eat and easy enough to identify.
Just for the record, (mainly for my own benefit) I also want to mention some other types of mushroom that we have eaten since I started foraging.
One of the first mushrooms to appear in the Spring is Calocybe gambosa - St.George's Mushroom, so called because it usually pops up round about 26th April - St.George's Day. It is easily identified by its mealy scent, but unfortunately in terms of looks it could be confused with other less attractive fungi. Nevertheless I have learned how to reliably recognise this one and we have eaten it several times.
Then there is Lepista nuda, the Wood Blewit. A very good-looking mushroom, with lilac gills and a tan cap-surface, this one is nevertheless the only one we have eaten that made Jane and me feel unwell. It was nothing extreme - just a bit of general nausea - and I have subsequently understood that the mushroom should have been cooked for longer - but still, I'm wary of this one!
This year, for the first time we tried Neoboletus luridiformis, the Scarletina Bolete. It has rather alarming colouring - red and yellow, with flesh that instantly turns bright dark blue when cut! This is also one that needs long cooking to remove its toxins. In its favour though, it is very meaty and retains its texture well when cooked. However it's not one that we were particularly enamoured with.
Finally a mention for Grifola frondosa - Hen Of The Woods. I have only ever found one in good condition, and it was just before we went away on holiday, so I only cooked one little piece to try it, and dried the rest for later use. The bit I tried was very tasty, though it did produce a few gurgles in the tummy! Friends have told me that it is prone to promoting severe wind, so maybe this is one to be omitted from your cooking if you are hosting a Dinner Party...
Incidentally, if you want to learn more about these or any other fungi, I recommend having a look at a website called First Nature, which has a really good section on fungi. It is the resource I use most often in my identifications, and I have found it to be immensely valuable.