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A Life in Mushrooms

A Life in Mushrooms
A conversation between lifelong foragers Roger Phillips and Natascha Kenyon
Natascha Kenyon

Roger Phillips is a botanist, artist, and expert forager who has spent his life exploring the edible and intriguing corners of the wild plant and fungi kingdoms that make up over eighty percent of life on earth. As a child, evacuated to his grandparents’ farm during the war, Phillips sold mushrooms to the milkman by the half crown. This year, at eighty-seven, he published his forty-ninth book The Worldwide Forager having spent the intervening decades becoming Britain’s best-loved and most recognisable expert on wild mushrooms and foraged food, which he continues to promote through courses, talks, and Instagram where he can be found, in his trademark ‘fly agaric’ beret, waxing lyrical about the joys of wild garlic, edible bulbs, nettles, and a thousand other foragable delights. Natascha met with Roger at his beautiful cottage in the ancient Wiltshire hills. They spent the afternoon chatting over tea and then, as foragers do, went on a quick foray in the local woods.

Natascha: Was it just the field mushrooms that you foraged as a child, or was there anything else?

Roger: No, it was just the field mushrooms. My grandmother wouldn’t let me eat any of the others. One time I found some horse mushrooms (what I now know to be horse mushrooms) and she said: ‘Where did you get those?’ and I said: ‘Under the Elm tree on the edge of the field’ and she immediately threw them out. Gone!

N: What brought you back to studying them later then?

R: I was working on my first book Wildflowers of Britain and in the autumn you’ve got the orchids and hellebores you know, and I was out looking for orchids and hellebores to photograph, when I thought ‘Christ, there’s more mushrooms about than I ever had any idea existed!’ So, I started trying to work on mushrooms right then, even though I was in the middle of a book.

N: Roger, when I first met you it was at a banquet dinner in Savernake forest and you gave a talk on –

R: Oh my God, I was pissed! They told me I was going to be on after they’d served the third course or whatever, and then they said I was going to be on after the next course, and finally they told me I was going to have you on at the end! By that time, I could hardly stand up!

N: As I remember it was a six-course dinner, celebrating local foods! It was lovely. Your talk was about how foraging is an instinct in us that goes back to ancient times. Can you elaborate on that?

R: The simplest way of putting it is that people love something for nothing, so if there are blackberries about people will go and pick them because they are delicious and free; it’s that instinct, carried forward. People think it’s wonderful when they find wild food themselves and realise they’re not dependent on manufacturers and supermarkets. It’s almost like a primitive feeling, that if the world implodes and everything goes wrong we could manage to survive, one way or another.

N: What was the driving force that sparked your connection to the Fungi kingdom? For many people it was your book; what was it for you?

R: I’ve talked about my grandparents’ farm a lot as my initial inspiration, but later in my career I made my living as a food photographer. I was always very interested in local foods and foods that had gone out of fashion. My father came from Lancashire, and he used to cook tripe and pigs’ trotters and make brawn, things that people in the south just did not eat. Food photography led me into becoming interested in edible fungi. What I’d been studying was the biology and background to mycology, but I was also really interested in the food side, too, the cooking and eating of mushrooms.

N: You’re also a visual artist, so how have your experiences foraging and closely observing non-human life shaped your work?

R: A lot. Plants have been my thing for the last 45 years: all plants not just mushrooms and I’ve done two series of paintings related only to plants. I’m doing a series at the moment on very small canvases, where I draw the plant in black and white charcoal pencil and then I fix that, and then I paint one example of the plant on top of it, so it has drawing and painting on the same canvas.

N: Have you ever painted mushrooms?

R: Not really. I find all plants inspiring and I include mushrooms in that, but I have never painted mushrooms.

N: Where has been the most exciting place in the world to forage?

R: Well, I have foraged all over Europe and America but one of the most exciting expeditions was a couple of years ago. Nicky and I went to Portugal to visit our friend Tristan (we met him at your Medicinal Mushroom Conference), and he organised a trip with a local expert to look for desert truffles (called manna in the bible) which I’d always heard about and never seen. You can’t buy it anywhere and it’s not valuable like the black truffle or white truffle as it has no scent at all, so there’s no reason to import it. They are very difficult to spot but our expert knew his stuff and we did come home to the Quinta with a few specimens to try.

N: Is it edible?

R: Yes, absolutely it’s edible and perfectly fine to eat. It’s sort of quite crisp to eat, more like a bulb or something. It’s solid and, when you cook it, it doesn’t break down like a potato does.

N: Like a water chestnut or something?

R: Sort of like water chestnuts, yes.

N: You probably always get asked this, but what are your most exciting mushroom finds? I suppose desert truffle would be one.

R: I think yes that has to be one. Finding morels has got to be pretty high up there, too, as they are not that easy to find in Britain nor had I ever found many black trumpets but one time we went to the New Forest and they were everywhere! You could have picked thousands! They went on and on and on, and I think that was a pretty exciting day.

N: What do you think is driving the current popularity and increasing consciousness of mushrooms these days? People are getting more aware and more interested, aren’t they?

R: Well, I suppose it is people like us. We are being very un-British and talking about mushrooms and what can be done with them, whereas before, frightened by the early botanists, the inclination was always to avoid everything except field mushrooms. Now, people like us are talking about how exciting fungi are to study and to eat and with restaurateurs putting wild mushrooms on their menus, it is increasing general awareness. I have to say though, that not all so called ‘wild mushrooms’ are wild – since when was a portabello mushroom wild! But you and Fred and others are promoting the study of the medicinal effects of fungi, and others are talking about the ecological benefits so there is so much more information about mushrooms now that more and more people are getting interested. People are starting to become aware of the crucial role fungi play in the natural world; it’s getting through.

N: I think Nature is calling to people in a different way now.

R: Yes, yes. And we’re increasingly cognisant that nature is very precious. Whether we can do enough about it now, is something else.

N: You’ve published books for both UK and America audience. Have you noticed any differences in the ways people relate to mushrooms in the US to how they do here?

R: Yes, in general, Americans don’t have the same dislike or fear of mushrooms as the English do. I think this goes back to the original English plant books published about 200 years ago, where they describe fungi as ghastly things coming up overnight, and associating them with witchcraft and the supernatural without realising that some of those mushrooms had been there for thousands of years, coming up again and again, and they spoke of them as the spit of the devil. Although there are a lot of English people in America there are also an awful lot who came from French, German and Scandinavian stock or from a Polish or Russian background, so when you go out foraging in America it’s a melting pot of numerous influences and so the fear isn’t the same.

N: When people here first start foraging the cep is the thing they want to find. What is it in America?

R: Morels are the thing. I think they have more morels than we do. I did a little speaking tour in America and everywhere there were questions about morels. They organise weekends around them and have races. You go out at six o’clock in the morning and then whoever gets the most morels wins a prize!

Roger with Artists Bracket Fungus, Ganoderma applanatum by Natascha Kenyon.

N: From your experience, how can foraging grow into a more widespread practice whilst remaining sustainable?

R: This is one of the big questions around mushroom foraging – to pick or not to pick? The Mycological Society and lots of woodlands have come down completely against it. For me, the evidence that eating wild mushrooms is a problem for the viability of the mushroom parent doesn’t exist. You only have to go anywhere in Europe, where they collect them every year and still have just as many, to see that picking in not destructive. Truffles, perhaps, are the exception as they don’t have as many as they used to, but that’s mostly because of bloody habitat destruction. In France they’ve eaten all the wild boars that had been spreading the truffle spores, so that has interfered with the life-cycle. So, I don’t believe collecting wild mushrooms is harmful, provided you don’t dig up the whole thing. Some argue that people stomping about collecting commercially, often amateurs who collect everything and then throw what they don’t want away, contributes to habitat destruction, and there’s no doubt it’s a bit of a pain, but they sustain that all over Europe. One of the reasons why there might be fewer mushrooms in some areas is because we are destroying habitats in other ways – we’re concreting over half the country and spraying everything with chemicals.

Black Trumpet Mushrooms, Craterellus cornucopioides by Gaby Fitz.

N: Yes, the spraying doesn’t help, does it?

R: Farmers spray everything; they’re spraying here in Wiltshire. These are chalk downs and should have been sheep country, and there’s not a sheep to be seen anywhere in these valleys. Instead they’re growing wheat. The soil is cracked around here and they pour buckets of fertilizer and buckets of weed killer on it. We used to have ducks in the village pond but they have disappeared and we think that what has happened is that they’ve poisoned the water with insecticides, with knock-on effects on the water fowl. In the future, starting now, we need to do sustainable farming as well as foraging. Somehow or other, it must be possible.

N: As we understand more and more about the importance of fungi in the world’s ecosystems, their importance with plant life etc, many people are saying that the fungi kingdom has a huge role to play in ‘saving the world’. What do you think? Will fungi save the world?

R: They’re definitely going to be helpful. The real problem is we’re so busy finding ways of propagating our own lives and taking up so much space and resources we are destroying species before we realise what role the they be able to play in our carefully balanced ecosystem. Mushrooms can do an awful lot, and discoveries are being made every day about how they might help to biodegrade plastic and polystyrene. But the real problem is us.

N: If you could drop anything about the fungi kingdom into everybody’s brain what would it be?

R: I think the first thing I want everyone to realise is that the whole fungal kingdom is immensely important to life, which we are only just beginning to fully understand and learn about. Without the fungi kingdom trees wouldn’t be here, soil wouldn’t be here; I imagine the world just wouldn’t work. I imagine animals wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the fungi – they are vital. And if I want to drop some edible information into everyone’s brain it would be eat black trumpets if you can get them. They’re definitely my favourite cooking mushroom.

N: We’re with you on the trumpets, we’ve been down ditches and in mud! We’ve still got to find them near us; we went this year. I’m like ‘This is the year; Roger says they’re here; it’s wet; we’re going’ and we spent hours there, to no avail!

R: You can be so wrong, can’t you? You think, this is perfect, today is going to be the day, and then you don’t find a bloody thing!

“WE’RE INCREASINGLY THAT COGNISANT NATURE IS VERY PRECIOUS. WHETHER WE CAN DO MUCH ABOUT IT NOW IS SOMETHING ELSE”

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