"The mushroom is the sexual organ of the fungal organism."
"No it's not …"
"Yes, it is."
"So when I'm eating mushrooms, I'm actually eating fungus dick?"
I'm in the middle of a wood in Hertfordshire foraging for mushrooms with pub owners and experimental cooks George Fredenham and Richard Osmond. We're in search of fly agaric, the "legal" magic mushroom. We've not come up trumps yet but I have learned a vast amount of mushroom trivia.
For instance, despite Midsomer Murders once featuring the destroying angel mushroom as a murder weapon, more people die each year from stepping in buckets than they do foraging for mushrooms.
The fly agaric itself is similarly steeped in folklore. It is, of course, the archetypal toadstool: speckled with white and redder than a London bus. They also tend to grow in rings around birch or pine and some say this was the inspiration for presents around the tree at Christmas. Others believe that if you step into that ring, you'll be taken away to the fairy kingdom.
I think I'm destined for that very kingdom when I spot a mushroom under a piece of wood and alert the group with a massive smile on my face. Osmond walks over and kicks the branch away.
"That's a stone," he says.
Moments later when he finds a sulphur tuft, I try not to look impressed. He warns us that although the tuft are not deadly, if you eat one, you'll probably be on the toilet for 48 hours with a massive headache and palpitations.
Fredenham butts in: "It sounds a bit like the Naga chicken curry I had last night."
Another half hour and we call it a day and head back to the car.
It's the foragers' custom upon finding a huge haul of mushrooms to preserve them and keep them for a rainy day by drying them out and rehydrating when required. As such, Osmond already has a stash of fly agaric from September, which he's baked in the oven in order to turn the vomit-inducing ibotenic acid into the potentially psychosis-inducing muscimol: fly agaric's hallucinogenic agent.
"You may have heard the story about the reindeer herders," he says. "What they do is pick one person who is the village idiot or the town priest or both to eat the fresh mushroom. He goes absolutely crazy and then his body removes the ibotenic acid and metabolises it to muscimol, and he pisses it out and the whole town holds out a bowl and drinks his piss."
"Just to clarify," I reply. "That's not what I've been invited here for, is it?"
Thankfully, we won't be getting high on piss. Instead, we're eating the fly agaric in a risotto. Not that Osmond calls the high we're seeking out hallucinatory, instead opting for "visual disturbance"—much to the dismay of Fredenham.
The risotto is a super mushroom-y affair and a popular dish in the pair's St Albans pub The Verulam Arms, where they even have a mushroom-of-the-day board (fly agaric is not served, for obvious reasons).
Back in Dalston at the foragers' London HQ, Fredenham has prepared a stock on a camping stove using jelly ear mushrooms and the off-cuts of garlic, celery, and onion used for the base of the risotto.
He then cooks the mushrooms in oil with thyme, starting with the parasols because they tend to fall apart in the pot and saving what he calls the "better looking" mushrooms until the end. He stirs everything around, throws the rice in, and gradually adds the stock—stirring the entire time.
Meanwhile the "special mushrooms" are sautéd with butter, pepper, and a dash of lemon. The resulting mix includes chicken of the woods, hen of the woods, ceps (known in the UK as "penny bun"), and beefsteak mushrooms.
"This one is called 'beefsteak fungus,'" Osmond says, revving up to tell us yet more fungal folklore.
"Because it looks like steak?" I interject.
"Yeeees," he says forlornly and I wonder how many looks of incredulity one man can make in a day. Luckily, Osmond is not deterred.
"In medieval times, they used to think that this was symbolic of Jesus' flesh because it would appear on the oak tree and when it's fresh it really looks like bloody flesh," he adds.
Two minutes later and we're each taking a handful of the fly agaric and throwing it into the pan.
"If you join us, you do so entirely of your own will," says Osmond. "This is not something that I'm telling you to do."
A hearty, meaty, mushroom-y risotto dispensed with, and we head up through Dalston and onto Clissold Park. The skies are turbulent and the wind speckled with rain as we wander the pathways seeking out yet more mushrooms and their hidden thrills. We come across oyster mushrooms and a Field Blewit but sadly, no thrills—not even a mild "visual disturbance."
What did we do in the face of such adversity? What the British always do in a crisis: head to the pub.
A few pints later and I ask the pair what is it about using wild highs in their dishes that excites them so much. Osmond's answer somewhat surprises me.
"Our culture has a very hard line between 'highs' and 'food' but actually a lot of food contains different chemicals that can make you feel a different way," he says. "Embracing the highs draws your attention to the way that all food is capable of giving you different transcendental experiences and how you should relate to your food."
The conversation moves on to the way in which we've conditioned and controlled coffee and alcohol. How come we've never done the same with mushrooms?
"It's about capital," Osmond says. "The thing I love about food and drink is the communal aspect of it. It's an experience than can't really be bought or sold, but by getting all your food from the supermarket or buying your coffee from Starbucks it turns it into a unit of commodity sold to you by The Man."
Our pints have been emptied and, so it seems, our hopes dashed. We down our dregs and say our goodbyes. Outside the neon sign of the local Sainsbury's spews its white light on to the sodden streets. People shelter in doorways from the rain. I pull up my hood and head for home.
Next time, I think, we'll find our high.