By Gemma Driver
Ah, yes. I’m always thrilled if I mention The Mushroom Poisoning to a local, and they respond by saying “I heard”. There’s usually a flicker of irony playing about their eyes.
Now a fading memory and a slight embarrassment, the experience of poisoning myself and my partner taught me a lesson I will never forget. When I start to relive it, my humiliation turns to gratitude at still being alive.
It all started with our enthusiasm for the popular French pastime of picking and eating wild mushrooms. Being a fan of foraging, I was dying to experience the joy of collecting a mushroom bounty; a gift from nature itself. In addition, a spell of quite extreme hardship one autumn meant that we particularly liked the idea of some free and tasty protein in our diets.
Several mushroom missions all resulted in a rag taggle selection of single specimens. We had trouble identifying them from our small book on the subject, the pharmacy told us to chuck anything at all that wasn’t an obvious cèp, and all those that I took to a savvy neighbour turned out to be poisonous or dubious. What a disappointment!
Undeterred, and feeling ever more that we were missing out, the missions continued. Finally we found a couple of sources of standard field mushrooms, which we checked for signs of the poisonous Yellow Stainer. Certain that they were kosher, we were very pleased with ourselves, and relieved that we were at least able to find some mushrooms to eat. They were tasty, and they gave us confidence in our search for more elusive fungi. In fact, we talked about it at a dinner party, where people were concerned for us and the risks they felt we were taking; we joked, “it’s certainly exciting!”. Oh dear.
We had seen lots of terrifying-looking examples of the boletus family (the same family as cèps), which actually gave us the creeps. They tended to be massive, with lots of red, blue and green colouring. How satisfying it would be, we thought, to find an edible mushroom that big! Having read about the poisonous effects of Satan’s Boletus, we were not prepared to risk any of them with any red colouration. However, driven by frustration the morning after the dinner party, we took various other boletus home for identification. Most were rejected simply because we could not identify them, but one looked less harmful, so we did a bit of research on it before lunch.
The facts, as we knew them: The only boletus that is actually poisonous is Satan’s Boletus. The rest are either delicious or at least digestible. We checked books and the internet, but our harmless-looking specimen had none of the traits to be wary of, and it smelt good. So I cooked it up for lunch with garlic, parsley, crème fraîche and a dash of whisky. Strangely, though, it tasted quite bitter. I had a few mouthfuls and then decided not to risk any more; I wasn’t enjoying it anyway. My partner soldiered on and finished his portion, despite his particular sensitivity to bitter flavours. Against my protests, he did not want to reject food that I had prepared for him.
We both went back to work, after saying that in future we would always ask a neighbour or the pharmacy before trying a mushroom. I was slightly uneasy and slightly nauseous all afternoon but he was fine, and I thought I was just being paranoid.
After he’d finished work, my partner went out to mow the lawn, but after a couple of minutes he came back inside, saying that he suddenly felt ill. He looked scared, and told me that he knew it was the mushrooms. He started retching. Five minutes later, he was curled up on the gravel, sweating, shivering, retching and spasming. He was vomiting yellow slime, was slightly delirious and in a lot of pain. I was terrified.
As we waited for the doctor to arrive, I didn’t know what to do with myself or my poor man, and all I could think about was the possibility that the mushroom was deadly. This is the part that I remember like a nightmare, because I was so scared and shaky that it all seemed surreal. Time slowed.
Finally, the moody and unsympathetic doctor arrived, and I watched with tears in my eyes, as my parnter’s stomach violently spasmed under the doctor’s hand. The doctor asked what time we had eaten the mushroom. Perry started being ill precisely four hours after our lunch, which the doctor explained was the exact time delay for Satan’s Boletus. Thankfully, it would not be fatal, but the patient needed to get to hospital. It was at this point that I suddenly had to run outside, where I vomited bitter, yellow slime…
Having no medical insurance, we could not afford an ambulance, and there was no way I could drive, so I rang my friend, Anna, who was in the middle of serving dinner to guests. An ex-nurse, she thoughtfully arrived to take us to the hospital with towels and two buckets. A horrible drive to the hospital followed, and we were quickly admitted to the emergency room. We had taken along samples of the mushrooms we ate and staff reassured us they were only ‘undigestable’ rather than deadly.
That’s about it. After a night on a drip and lots of anti-nausea medication, we were physically absolutely fine. We ate breakfast in hospital and were discharged. The doctors told us that mushrooms vary regionally, and that we had eaten a local version of Satan’s Boletus that was devoid of the signs we had been looking for. This is why you should ALWAYS ASK A LOCAL before eating a foraged mushroom! Feeling very silly, we were slightly comforted by the doctor telling us that he had treated a French man who had made the same mistake a week earlier.
Since this experience, I have been haunted by the thought of deadly mushrooms like the Death Cap, which has a massive delay before you start to feel ill, but by that time there is absolutely nothing that can be done to save you. I know what it feels like to think you or your partner might be dying from eating a mushroom.
However, I was not put me off mushroom collecting, and have since had a lot of success; I can now easily recognise several different kinds of mushroom with 100% certainty, and have collected bag loads of delicious fungi every autumn. But I always ask a knowledgeable neighbour to verify any finds that I’m unsure about. After all, there’s not mush room for error.