Didier Raas is a pharmacist in Loches. He is also an expert mycologist, so as October comes round and the well-nigh 4,000 hectares of the Forêt de Loches bristle with multi-coloured mushrooms popping up through the carpet of newly fallen leaves, he is definitely “a fungi to be with”.
Didier has been taking eager groups of amateur mushroom-pickers into forests for 30 years and helping them understand the contents of their wicker baskets. Today was no exception. Our little band thronged round him as he took our pickings and arranged them along a felled log, grouped according to family.
There is quite simply nothing Didier Raas does not know about mushrooms, toadstools and fungi in general. He talked us through the anatomy of the mushroom – the cap, ring, gills, spores, stem, volva and mycelium – pointing out the extraordinary differences in texture, friability, colouring and odour, from one mushroom that smelled unmistakably of the welding gas acetylene, to others that smell like washing detergent, locomotive smoke, clementines, geraniums and even a seaweedy high tide. No mycologist worth his spores should smoke or wear perfume or aftershave, says Didier. Surprisingly, not a single mushroom we picked smelled of… well, mushrooms.
The question that was on everyone’s lips, as we peered proudly or shamefacedly into our baskets – the elephant in the forest, so to speak – was “Is it edible?” Every now and then, Didier’s face lit up and he said, “Yes, indeed. A fine specimen!” More often than not, though, the answer was in the negative.
“You’d think so, wouldn’t you? But there are 2,500 varieties of mushroom in this particular species and only four of them are edible.”
“Beautiful, isn’t it? But instant diarrhoea, I’m afraid.”
“Look how similar these two look! This one’s delicious, but this one will kill you!”
At one point, an elderly gentleman next to me who was looking increasingly crestfallen chucked his mushrooms on the ground and discreetly made his exit. The death sentences continued unabated.
“Now there’s an interesting thing about this family of mushrooms. They’re perfectly OK to eat, unless you drink alcohol. If you drink alcohol they can kill you. There’s a court case going on in Nantes at the moment. A woman who fed them to all of her dinner guests, knowing full well that only her husband would be drinking during the meal.”
He took each of our baskets and one by one tossed aside the noxious ones. “This belongs to a lethal family. The funny thing is, you have no symptoms for 14 days, then it kills you.”
“And this – well it makes you sweat like a pig, weep and go blind and only injections of atropine every 10 minutes will save your sight.”
“Ah yes, a toadstool that makes you feel as if your legs are dropping off. The pain lasts six months and is so intense that only massive doses of morphine can make life bearable.”
“Didier, is this one edible?” “Yes, it is. But look out for its cousin. Almost identical, but with a very fine red line just here, around the gills. Absolutely deadly.”
“Can I eat this?” “Yes, but not too many, please. Since Chernobyl, it absorbs radioactive Caesium at a very high rate. In Russia, they drop pamphlets on forests by plane to warn people against picking these fellas.”
“Aha! Eat that, and you’ll be seeing pink elephants within 30 seconds.”
By this time, everybody was sticking very close to Didier, as if mushroom Armageddon was approaching and he was our sole Redeemer. The question now on everyone’s lips was, “How can we ever go mushrooming without Didier?” Didier smiled knowingly. Clearly the answer was, “Forget it. You can’t”. But Didier is on a loftier plane altogether, in the end. You see, fundamentally he couldn’t care less whether a mushroom is edible or not. He finds them all beautiful in their different ways. It also turned out that he knows how to identify apples just by looking at their cross-sections, horizontally and vertically. One thing our little trip into the forest definitely taught all of us was the enormous variety of mushrooms out there, and how many of them were terminally toxic. But in the end it’s a case of “The mushroom-eater is dead, long live the mushroom!” Verily, if you are one of those who think that life’s too short to stuff a mushroom, Didier Raas is not your man.
This outing, on a day of resplendent sunshine, was a fascinating insight into that barely visible world of pretty domed caps shunting up beneath our feet. But when the visit was over, like the elderly gentleman before us, we discreetly emptied our basket onto the forest floor and headed for Loches market before it closed. No offence, anyone. There’s a Dutchman there who grows mushrooms in his cellar, under controlled conditions – Paris mushrooms, shiitake – and accepts forest mushrooms such as pieds de mouton, girolles and cêpes – from mushroom Maharishis such as Didier.
To hell with the expense! We just don’t want to die…