On a sun-dappled Sunday at the start of October, mycologist Bill O’Dea leads a group of fellow fungi curious folk on a mushroom hunting expedition on the grounds of Ballyteige Lodge in Wicklow.
Q: What is a mushroom?
A: A mushroom is the fruiting body of the fungal colony.
Bill O’Dea asks and answers the question. He is Mr Mushroom after all and his foraging walks attract all sorts, from the cottagecore, to foodies, rewilders to new-agers and those simply fascinated by fungi.
Our curiosity has literally mushroomed since the days when composer John Cage persuaded administrators at the New School to allow him to teach a course on mycology alongside his music classes. “Supreme good fortune,” he once wrote in his diary, as he held a fine specimen in his hand. “We’re both alive!” Nowadays there are countless expeditions, societies and even the world’s first film festival – Fungi Film in Oregon – dedicated to this rich abundance in our soil.
Before traipsing around the woodlands in Ballyteige, which is nestled amid three interlocking valleys along the River Ow, Bill gathers all assembled for a brief rundown in an outhouse, projecting his laptop learnings on to a billowy sheet.
“There could be 12 million fungal species in existence, yet fewer than 100,000 named, our knowledge is evolving all the time,” he says. “In healthy soil there’s 16km of mycellium, the underground network of fungal threads, in every square metre.”
Here in Ireland, he estimates there are roughly 4000 mushrooms of which 25 are good edibles and 50 are severely poisonous. “The short cut is to focus on both ends…of course, you can eat any mushroom once,” he chuckles, recounting a response to Dáithí off the tele when he enquired about whether one should sample mushrooms from the back garden.
Bill believes that those of us brought up by Irish parents were largely “fungiphobic…we don’t have a culture of picking wild mushrooms apart from the field one. Compared to France, Spain, Poland and Eastern Europe where they are celebrated in season.” He considers attributing this to a possible “echo chamber” which may have been created on our island by some “bad experiences within relatively small communities” back in the day. “We’ve lost a lot of our history of cuisine, there is a peasant food culture that is treasured elsewhere whereas we have a certain shame about it which possibly comes from the famine.”
In the East, mushrooms have always been more highly considered, something which Bill brings up when discussing Turkey’s Tail and how an extract from it us used as “a standard part in cancer treatment” in Japan. And while they bolster the immune function, he believes the cost of clinical research trials coupled with the challenge in regulatory authorisation and patenting wards pharma off their trail…they are complementary, not alternative, medicines,” he is keen to point out.
Clutching our baskets, we set forth in small groups wandering over mossy ground in the valley, crunching twigs and bark beneath our feet as the sun sprinkles through the trees. Accompanying us is Sean McArdle from the Lodge, a place he bought the place in ’97. The Lodge was Ballyteige Lodge was originally built as a hunting lodge in 1900 for a prominent Dublin-based surgeon of the time, John McArdle. The weekend retreat was used for entertaining and down through the years, some significant figures from Irish political history have visited the Lodge. Famed names such as John Redmond and Charles Stewart Parnell visited there. Sean is a distant descendant. He’s a merry sort with a dash of gentry and a shock of Fagin hair.
“My father was Irish and so I had some contact with Wicklow. I lived in Dorset and was involved in the organic movement since college developing quite a successful distribution business.” After selling up the business and moving here he was instrumental in setting up the Irish Farmer’s Markets. The spirit of openness and reinvention permeates his attitude towards having Bill here for the first time. “I once had a mushroom farm. We grew Paris Browns. We were the second organic mushroom farm in the UK in 1980.”
When we catch up with Bill, he’s a little downbeat regarding the haul of the day. When I ask what he’s found, he say, “Fuck all, I found a cep. There’s some cortinarius…It’s all down to conditions on the day.”
Beside him is Enda Williams, a cook from Kilkenny. He came on the walk after reading a Reddit article. He’s drawn to it from a “food perspective…Recently I came across JP McMahon’s Irish Cookbook and the notion of all the things you can cook from foraging wowed me such as sea herbs, seaweed, fungi, the plethora of it all…he wants to look at the past to see how people ate.”
When we return to base, there’s a healthier communal haul being spread out for Bill’s inspection. He peers through his glasses like a gemologist studying these diamonds of the soil before deciding what we can fry up and taste and discard.
“that’s a summer cep the way they explode on the stem…we got some hedgehogs, good, do you see the spike like stubble…where did you find these? past the waterfall?…there’s a jelly baby (Leotia lubrica)…this is one of the many bracket fungi, I can’t be sure, it could be a Mazegill, they are basically like wood…we don’t have any purple deceivers, we just have the brown ones, they are edible…today I could only find one puffball…
I take Angela Healy who works with everything from “plants to planets” aside for a quick word. She set up a holistic skincare company called Willow Cottage in 2012 and is a shamanic practitioner also.
”I use the planets to extract the healing properties of the plants into oils using solar and lunar energy and use those oils to make substance creams. Before that I was a chef for 20 years working with the Fitzer Group, the King Sitric in Howth, I opened one called the River Club (near arch at the Ha’Penny Bridge)…We are going through the rough shit now but we are moving into the age of Aquarius, its glyph are like two waves on top of each other which shows we can live side by side…we are being moved into our authentic self. There’s no othering…I work with all kinds of energies for healing and that is why I came on this looking for the healing elements of mushrooms.”
The questions come thick and fast for Bill from an informed and enthusiastic group:
“If you bruise a bolete and it goes blue is it ok to eat?”
“It depends, some such as the porcini are. I think this might be the inky bolete. I don’t think we’ll eat it,” responds Bill.
Inevitably, we come across some magic mushrooms, an Amanita muscaria in this instance. “These are psychoactive and will also make you sick which isn’t a good combination,” says Bill. “Best dry them first and make tea.”
Sean chips in to tell us about the origins of the word berserk. “The Viking vanguard army comes from a group of volunteers who would take these at great quantities, have a sweat lodge, go completely beserk and then go into battle as a vanguard. Imagine 300 long-haired warriors screaming, coming at you and stoned out of their heads on this stuff.”
The conversation moves on to the The Sámi tribe, urine, the origins of the phrase ‘getting pissed’ and flying reindeer…We leave these aside, cook up our edibles and safely disband.
Future mushroom hunts include one in Co. Wicklow on Saturday November 18, €75. Book tickets.