GOING WILD FOR MUSHROOMS; MUSHROOM season is at its peak and there are wild varieties to be found across Coventry and Warwickshire. But could you tell which fungi was more expensive than gold and which would guarantee your dinner guests a grizzly end? Environment reporter MARY GRIFFIN meets a man who can.
EET Coventry's answer to Ray Mears.
MPaul Hodges is an expert at foraging for free food in the wilds of Coventry and Warwickshire and has an infectious enthusiasm for the great outdoors.
For Paul, one of Coombe Country Park's three estate officers, autumn is a season full of potential and it's the best time of year for one of his favourite pastimes - mushroom hunting.
"We've had a bumper year this year," he says. "The cold spell of last Christmas re-set the clock on things.
"You can get fungi any time of year - morels and some other types you'll only find in spring - but most people tend to see more of the bigger showing varieties around now."
October and November boast the greatest number and variety of mushrooms rewarding eagle-eyed foragers who are prepared to wrap up warm for an autumnal expedition.
Mushroom hunting has soared in popularity over the last decade supported by celebrity chefs sourcing local, low-impact food, and new varieties have found their way on to the shop shelves.
More than 100,000 varieties of fungi have been identified, but this is believed to be just the tip of the iceberg.
At Coombe alone, there are more than 300 distinct varieties, from the Fly Agaric - the traditional-looking (and poisonous) toadstool - to highly-prized truffles.
According to Paul, some truffles - which grow underground and can be found only by a specially trained sniffer dog - are worth their weight, both figuratively and litera in gold.
And not long the staff at Coo had the thrill o identifying a new species of truffle for Warwickshire. DON'T FORAGE FOOLISHLY THERE are rare and Red of fungi that should not you want to forage for your first sign up for a fungi foray expert to make sure that what you are picking and When But Paul's enthusiasm about the truffle pales in comparison to his excitement at finding a rare, maggot-infested Tooth Fungus on a tree trunk. collect responsibly.
species be careful not leaf litter vegetation, And always check landowner first.
After doing an environmental studi specialising in wildlife and countryside management, Paul did an arboriculture qualification which included identifying fungi.
But originally, it was the idea of "wild food" that sparked his interest.
He said: "For me, I started out with the foodie side of things.
"I do quite a lot of bushcraft and survival in my spare time - Ray Mears-type stuff - List species be picked. If your dinner, foray with an you know how to identifying to damage or soil. and if you're doing that kind of thing in the wild and you're foraging for food you've got to know what you're doing, because if you get it wrong the consequences could be serious."
After perfecting his ills in finding and with the ntifying fungi, Paul now advice to beginners, g annual "fungus " at Coombe. "I keep it relatively simple and I try to get people to learn the edible fungi by giving them anecdotes that they'll remember," he says.
Some of his favourite facts and fables come from the alternative uses for fungi, for example the Ink Caps, which release their spores to reproduce and then liquefy, becoming a black mess within a few hours.
"People used to collect that to use as ink on a feather scribe," says Paul.
"And the biological washing powder you use to wash your clothes, well, those enzymes were originally discovered in fungi but we've now found a way to manufacture them."
The Ink Cap can be useful in the bush - not just for writing your postcards - but as a fire lighting tinder.
Similarly, the Daldinia Concentrica, can be dried and lit, burning like a barbecue briquette.
These hard black lumps of fungus are known as coal fungus or "King Alfred's Cakes" - a nod to the monarch's poor baking skills after he reportedly burnt a batch of buns.
Less practical but more pretty is the small and bright Green Elf Cup, containing a pigment which turns wood infected by the species bluey-green.
The colour can be used to paint decorative woodwork.
The Birch Bracket Fungi, which has a texture similar to polystyrene, was once used for sharpening razor blades, hence its nickname - razor strop fungus.
And the Earth Star, a star-shaped fungus with a puffball in the middle, was once used for special effects.
Paul said: "In the old days of theatre, when the baddie came out on stage and there was an ominous flash, that was made by fungal spores that were gathered to use as stage lightning."
But aside from their uses as blade sharpeners, pen ink and detergent enzymes, fungi fulfil a crucial ecological role, connecting and passing nutrients between the earth and plants.
Paul said: "Look at our forest. Those trees wouldn't be here without fungus.
"The tree gives fungus the sugars it makes via photosynthesis and in return the fungus gets the phosphates and nutrients the tree needs from the ground.
"It's a little bit like an umbilical cord: the fungus will move between a tree and a bluebell, running through leaf litter and the soil.
"These are the kinds of things most people don't see and don't think about but they are critical and if you damage them you damage the environment we ourselves depend on."
Which festive tree? KEVIN and GRANT N ASHBY return with their fortnightly gardening advice from Hilltop Garden Centre in Shilton Lane.
IT WILL soon be time to dust off those baubles, put up the tree and hang out those decorations. Christmas is here once again.
There are many different types of decorations from small and delicate to big and bold, with baubles, tinsel, lights, flowers and even feathers in a wide variety of colours to help create your choice of modern or traditional style.
Artificial trees have improved greatly over the past few years and there is now a large selection available, from slimline trees which are a great space saver, to wider trees for a more traditional look.
Many people still prefer to have a real Christmas tree and there are many types to choose from, including Blue Spruce, Scotch Pine, Nordsman and the Norway Spruce.
A real Christmas tree will last for many weeks if kept correctly.
Position you tree away from heat (i.e. not next to a radiator) and use a suitable stand. Metal stands are good as they allow you to add water easily.
A rooted Christmas tree is also an option. This means after gradually acclimatising the tree can be planted in your garden after Christmas allowing you to watch it grow, year after year.
THE FATAL ATTRACTION OF THE DEATH CAP ARE! Some fungi are lethally sonous and others could make you ry ill.
The Death Cap (amanita phylloides) extremely poisonous and in Europe 's responsible for 90 per cent of all ungus-related poisoning deaths. Earlier this year an inquest was held to the death of a woman on the Isle Wight who died after eating Death mushrooms picked unwittingly at a tanical garden.
The inquest heard that the Death Cap can be mistaken for common field mushrooms and the coroner warned that only half a Death Cap mushroom is enough to kill a human.
It takes between six and 24 hours before the first symptoms show - diarrhoea, vomiting and stomach ache. They appear to subside, but the poison continues to work, attacking the liver and kidney.
Around the same time as the Isle Of Wight tragedy, author Nicholas Evans - who wrote the best seller The Horse Whisperer - fell seriously ill after eating wild mushrooms with his wife, brother-in-law and sister-in-law.
They had picked Fool's Webcap which can be mistaken for a Chanterelle. It attacks the kidneys, spinal cord and liver. The author underwent dialysis and had a lucky escape.
When trying wild mushrooms for the first time large portions can spurn an allergic reaction so small samples are advised.
But the golden rule is that if you aren't entirely sure what species you have found, don't eat it.
both litera DON'T FORAGE FOOLISHLY THERE are rare and Red List species of fungi that should not be picked. If you want to forage for your dinner, first sign up for a fungi foray with an expert to make sure that you know what you are picking and how to When identifying collect responsibly.
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landowner "I keep Our guide to some of the most popular fi