So mushroom for sweet chestnuts

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As the summer crops hang on a little longer and the autumn season begins, October is the best month for foraging, says expert Carl Mintern

Sweet chestnut trees kindly leave the nuts at their base, ready for collecting

October is here, and it’s perhaps the most exciting time to be a forager. Most of the tender plants are still hanging on in places, offering a rich assortment of wild salads and herbs, and the nut harvest is now in full swing. To top it all there is never a greater variety or abundance of wild edible mushrooms to choose from, meaning I can sometimes return from a trip to a woodland or footpath with bags of produce collected from high and low.

Field Mushrooms
Let’s start with one such bag filler – Field Mushrooms (Agaricus Campestris).
Field Mushrooms can be found from summer to autumn, but I have found the peak season in these parts to be September and October. During this period, I can often spot them in a field as I am driving around, at which point I tend to hit the brakes and work out where I can park (after checking my mirrors, obviously)! One of the best things about this mushroom is that when you find some, you often find a lot, meaning just one harvesting session can sometimes end up with me bringing home a year’s supply! Couple this with the fact that these mushrooms are really easy to preserve through dehydrating and I think you are onto a winner.

Just making sure
The Field Mushroom is found in grassland that is not intensively used by agriculture, meaning not monocultures where the use of pesticides is prevalent, but look for them on grazing pasture for sheep and the like. It is a saprobic mushroom, meaning it survives by recycling dead and decaying organic matter under the foliage of the grass. It can be found individually or in clumps, but also in partial or full rings, sometimes many metres across.
Look for a smooth and white cap which can develop a slightly darker centre with time. The young mushroom is domed, resembling the shape of a closed cup mushroom from the supermarket, but the cap opens out to flat as it grows. The gills start off a delicate pink and turn brown then eventually black with age. The size of the cap is usually 3cm to 10cm and if handled roughly can bruise a very slight yellowish colour. The poisonous lookalike mushroom, helpfully called the Yellow Stainer, also stains yellow – but much more vividly.
Luckily for us there is also another key identifier to help us differentiate between this delicious edible and its toxic cousin – smell.
The Yellow Stainer will smell of chemicals, rather than the usual ‘mushroomy’ smell we might expect, and this smell can be exaggerated by placing in the microwave for a few seconds if further reassurance is needed. As always, never munch on a hunch and be sure you have correctly identified your prize before eating!

Your sense of smell should easily tell edible Field Mushrooms from their poisonous Yellow Stainer lookalikes.

Sweet chestnuts
Next up on my free wild food shopping list is sweet chestnuts (Castanea sativa) – a delicious treat of sweet nuttiness, as the name suggests. Sweet chestnut is another wild edible that was introduced to Britain by the Romans, so we can add this nut to the list when answering that old chestnut, “what have the Romans ever done for us?”
Chestnuts can be cooked in any way imaginable; baked, roasted, boiled, or microwaved. But do ensure you score a cross in the shiny skin otherwise there is a high probability of exploding when they are cooked!
After cooking, the options continue to expand. Eat them as-is, add them to desserts or make some stuffing. You can also puree them, store them in syrup or make delicious sweets from them.
Established trees will kindly leave the nuts at their base ready for you to collect, and, with their unmistakable prickly shell, they are not easily confused with anything dangerous. Just be sure you know the difference between sweet chestnuts and conkers and you cannot go wrong … unless of course you forget to bring gloves!

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