I was reminded by a Petrona post on The Dark Valley by Valerio Valesi of the relevance to crime fiction of another hobby of mine: mushrooming.
Mystery writers have made use of fungal poisons, of course. Most famously, The Documents in the Case by Dorothy L. Sayers and Robert Eustace centres on a case of muscarine poisoning.
Muscarine is found in the red-and-white spotty mushroom beloved of people who draw fairies: Fly Agaric. ‘A teaspoonful would settle your hash all right, and leave a bit over for the dog. Nice symptoms. Sickness, blindness, delirium and convulsions,’ in the words of the chemist Leader in Documents. The nastiest thing about muscarine is that just before it kills you, after a period of indescribable pain, you suddenly and briefly feel completely recovered. Incidentally, a common misconception about Fly Agaric is that it is actually spotty: the spots on the cap are in fact flakes of skin and rub off easily, leaving a plain red mushroom.
There are various ways to be sure a foraged mushroom isn’t poisonous. Unfortunately the only method that works is to spend time properly identifying your finds. The least reliable method of all is judging a mushroom by its name. Mushroom names have a wonderful and frequently criminous poetry all their own, but they are not a guide to edibility.
Some of the nasties are obvious: I doubt you’d queue to sample the Sickener, Poison Pie, Satan’s Bolete or the Deathcap. But what about the Trumpet of the Dead (as mentioned by Valesi)? In fact this is apparently quite pleasant, and also bears the more charitable name Horn of Plenty.
Equally, the Deceiver, the Scurfy Deceiver and the even more resonantly named Twisted Deceiver are all, in fact, edible. However, the pleasantly bosky-sounding Green Dapperling is poisonous. Its cousin the Deadly Dapperling is more obviously one to avoid. Meanwhile, Plums and Custard is named for its colour-scheme rather than its ‘dubious’ taste.
A little-publicised fact of mushroom names in English is that most mushrooms didn’t actually have names in English until fairly recently. Unlike continental Europe we have little tradition of foraging for fungi, although apparently there were many more varieties commonly on sale in the past. It was rationing in WWII, plus the influx of European immigrants soon after, which made foraging a little more popular. My lovely King Penguin Edible Fungi talks about ‘using edible fungi to add variety to a wartime diet’. Many of the names above, as traditional as they sound, originated amongst post-war enthusiasts. My favourite traditional-sounding-but-probably-bogus name is Dead Moll’s Fingers.
Some of our names are downright uncommercial. Supermarkets now commonly stock Porcini and Waitrose at least has carried Pieds de Mouton in the recent past. In English these are plain old Penny Bun and Hedgehog Fungus.
I’m a nervous forager and have tried only four of the top ten edibles. I’ve identified more, but not positively enough to feel comfortable eating them. Even though very few of the poisonous varieties are actually deadly, care is very much the order of the day!
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.