It’s a habit as old as mankind, but in an age of factory farming and ultra-processed foods, foraging has become the foodie trend that graces high-end restaurants and home kitchens alike.
But it is not without its dangers, as a family in Australia tragically discovered when they ate mushrooms for lunch, leaving three of them dead and a fourth struggling to survive.
The grim reality is that foraging is responsible for thousands of poisonings and dozens of deaths each year in wealthy Western countries where food is plentiful, largely due to hapless hobbyists eating what they shouldn’t.
In the US alone, there are approximately 7,500 cases of mushroom poisoning each year, around 700 of which lead to “serious harm” and three of which are fatal. Hundreds occur each year in France and dozens in both the UK and Australia.
Diana Hamill Page of York stepped off the grid and taught her children how to find food, make preserves and fire guns in the event of an apocalypse. She is pictured here foraging
The wild mushroom, which recently killed three searching for them in Australia
Geoff Dann, who has foraged in the UK for four decades and literally wrote the book on the subject, says guilt is often a mix of arrogance, overconfidence and wishful thinking.
“People just don’t realize how many mushrooms there are,” he says. “They’ll buy a little book with a few dozen in it, go out, find something that looks a little bit like what they have in the book, and they want to believe they’ve found what they’re looking for.” .’
That can easily prove fatal, as many edible mushrooms look nearly identical to lethally poisonous varieties, at least to the untrained eye. And that is especially true in the case of deathcaps.
“Almost every fatal poisoning since the invention of modern medicine involves (deathcaps),” says Geoff.
“They look like things you might want to eat, they’re pretty common, and even a small amount is going to kill you.”
That appears to be the case for Don and Gail Patterson, and Gail’s sister Heather Wilkinson, who died last week after eating a steak and mushroom pie believed to contain the fungus.
Heather’s husband Ian is now in hospital awaiting a liver transplant, which leaves Erin Patterson, who cooked but apparently didn’t eat the cake, to face some tough questions.
Foraging is once the way humans obtained most of their food, living as hunter-gatherers on a diet thought to be much more varied than what we eat today.
But since the development of industrial agriculture in the 20th century, people, especially in the West, have become almost entirely dependent on what they can buy for their livelihood rather than what they can grow or find for themselves.
However, in recent decades that has spawned a countercultural movement that aims to return to nature in search of food seen as healthier than what is available in supermarkets.
What started with hippies in the 1960s and 1970s (Geoff admits his foraging began as a failed attempt to collect magic mushrooms) quickly became a foodie trend in the 1980s and ’90s.
The iconic Danish restaurant Noma, which opened in Copenhagen in 2003, proved that food-harvesting can be done commercially, and these days it’s hard to find a fine-dining establishment where at least some of the ingredients haven’t been gathered locally. .
Planet-conscious cooks have also started looking for food for their home kitchens, and Geoff says the pandemic lockdowns have proven to be a boon to the hobby.
“People couldn’t socialize and had to find something to do outside,” Geoff explains. ‘So a lot of them started looking for food.’
But as a slew of newbies turned to the hobby for the first time, poisoning cases skyrocketed.
In France in 2021, 330 people fell ill and three died in the space of two months after eating mushrooms they had picked.
In Australia, nearly 150 people fell ill during the 2022 fungus season, including three dozen in just a few weeks in May.
Two of them were Alice Both, from South Australia, and her 12-year-old daughter, who had to be rushed to hospital after eating mushrooms found growing in her garden.
Alice used a smartphone app to identify the mushroom and was told it was safe, but it turned out that the software had misidentified a lethal mushroom.
She ended up in intensive care but luckily her daughter only ate a couple of bites from the dish and was released after a couple of days.
Describing her symptoms, Ms Both said: “I was dizzy, I felt like I was passing out.”
And Geoff recalls a UK case from 2017 where two Thai women who had never foraged before foraged foraged enough mushrooms in Dartmoor national park to kill their entire family.
But luckily, they were stopped on their way home by a couple of experienced collectors who quickly identified the lethal batch and convinced them to dump it.
Amy Hitchcock, an experienced picker offering bespoke picking tours in Kent, England
Craig Evans from Ammanford searches for clams and mussels under the sand
Evans educates people from all over the world on how to hunt for shellfish. In the image: clams and mussels collected in the sea
Despite this, Geoff encourages people to take up the hobby, as long as it’s done in a safe and sustainable way.
He says: ‘(Finding food) gives you a reason to go out into nature. Not just to wander in it, but to pay attention to it.
‘(It means) interacting with the natural world in a way that is missing from our lives.
“That’s what evolution taught our brains to do, that’s what we’re supposed to do, and it’s so good for mental health.”
But he also warns: ‘Don’t eat anything you’re not 100% sure about.
‘Don’t use an app because there’s a margin of error with such things, and don’t trust internet ids either.
“There are a lot of people trying to prove they know a lot about mushrooms online when they don’t, and I see sure misidentifications all the time.
Learn to do these things yourself.
As a starting point, he generously suggests buying his books, which he says are “reasonably priced and available online.”