Sunday, January 2, 2011

A multitude of mushrooms

In more northerly latitudes, fungi are a feature of the late summer to late autumn period. Here in southern Portugal, the peak season is winter, especially with the sort of prolonged heavy rains we've had recently.

The Portuguese are wary of mushrooms and rightly so. Eating the wrong sort can cause not-very-nice hallucinations, sickness and, in exceptional cases, death. Unless you are absolutely certain that a particular variety of mushroom is perfectly safe to eat, look at it closely where it is growing, admire it, maybe even photograph it - and leave it alone.

The most notorious fungal species in Portugal is the Death Cap, Anamita philloides, usually found growing innocuously enough under trees. Unfortunately the Death Cap looks rather like some species of edible mushroom. The imposing cap is greenish or yellowish in colour, paler at the edges, with a white stripe. It measures 5 cm to 15 cm (2 to 6 inches) across and presides over a elegant, pale-coloured stem. Don't be fooled by the sometimes honey-like smell. It turns sickly sweet with age. Death Caps are said to taste quite pleasant. Don't test it. The toxins in this dastardly toadstool attack the liver and kidneys and have caused countless deaths since ancient times.

A walk though open woodland may reveal the weird and wonderful Helvella crispa, the Elfin Mushroom, otherwise known as the Saddle Mushroom because of its saddle-shaped crown. Creamy white in colour, it is easily identified by its thick, intricately ribbed and furrowed stem. Its cap is contorted and curly-lobed. The species is also found in China, Japan, other parts of Europe and the eastern United States. It has a faint odour but no distinctive taste. Opinions differ about whether it should be tasted at all. Eaten raw it may produce gastrointestinal symptoms. Research shows it may be carcinogenic.

So-called Earthstar mushrooms of the Geaster genus are puffballs that take their name from their star-like appearance when mature. Their outer casing breaks open, creating segmented lobes that radiate from a central ball, the spore sack. Earthstars are interesting to look at but of no culinary value.

The generic name of Phallus impudicus gives a strong clue about the shape of what is otherwise known as the Common Stinkhorn. The latter says quite a lot about it too. With its slimy, dark olive, conical head atop a thick white stem 15 cm to 25 cm tall, it may be found growing in garden or woodland mulch. Insects are attracted by its foul odour. They immediately zero in when the fungus suddenly shoots up overnight from its initial, underground egg-like state. Most people are repulsed by the Stinkhorn, but it is not poisonous and some Europeans, particularly in France and Germany, relish eating them. Yuk! There's no accounting for some people's tastes

Whether deadly or a delicacy, mushrooms flourish in an abundance of varieties and finding and identifying them is an excellent reason for getting out into the damp southern Portugal countryside at this time of year.

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