Autumn’s wild bounty is a cause for celebration across the Continent. In France and Germany, people rush into the woods, motivated largely by greed. Families drink, eat and forage, while the elderly show their grandchildren what is — and isn’t — safe to eat.
In Britain, attitudes are different. Even conkers now seem suspect. We are particularly nervous about fungi, because we are told that picking mushrooms is both dangerous and bad for the environment. This is a shame. Britain has the perfect climate for some of the most flavoursome wild mushrooms known to man. They grow in our woods, pastures and hedges, yet almost all of us ignore them.
I am a keen mushroom forager and regularly lead fungi forays, so keep a close eye on foraging developments. In the New Forest, for instance, the current eruption of delicious ceps, chanterelles and horn of plenty is eclipsed by the number of notices sternly telling the public that they aren’t allowed to pick them. The same is true in the car parks of the National Trust and the Royal Parks. The advice seems to be: ‘Look, but don’t touch, let alone taste!’
What’s more, foragers have started having to defend their pastime from local vigilantes. One elderly woman I know was recently accosted by a man who wanted to stop her ‘plundering’. He tried to seize her basket, because the nearby posters suggested she was up to no good.
But she wasn’t. The right to forage is ingrained in British law. It is rooted in the Charter of the Forest, the much overlooked — but arguably more important — cousin of Magna Carta. It was enacted in 1217, to allow everyone (as opposed to just the barons) basic rights to pick foliage, fruit and flowers.