By Geoff Dann
The UK is still in the midst of the longest spell of unbroken hot/dry weather since 1976, and as a result there are almost no ground-fruiting fungi to be found. This is likely to change very quickly when the rains finally come.
Brittlegills, are often avoided by foragers, especially novices, because there are so many of them (over 100 in the UK) and they’re difficult to tell apart. However, they are relatively easy to identify, and because none of them are dangerously poisonous, there is some room for experimentation, many of them make excellent eating.
So how do you recognise a Brittlegill? Well, apart from always growing near trees, they all have white/cream gills which stay white (unlike cultivated mushrooms, which go brown) and they have white, granular flesh
(it breaks apart like a sugarcube, rather than being fibrous). Most also have brittle gills (unsurprisingly). They come in a very wide range of colours (everything but blue), and in many cases the cap colour can be variable – something you need to remember if you google for images of them. Also be aware of their close relatives the milkcaps, which share many of these features but which have gills that weep “milk” or “latex” when broken.
There’s a rule of thumb for determining the edibility of brittlegills: if they taste edible raw, then they are certainly edible cooked. So take a nibble, chew it up a bit, and leave it in your mouth for 30 seconds. If they taste mild, you’ve got an edible one. If they taste bitter, acrid or hot (raw) they need special preparation: boil twice for 5-10 minutes and discard the water before covering with a large amount of salt and placing under pressure (between two plates, with something heavy on top). When “pickled” in brine formed from their own juices they’re ready to eat. In Russia, brittlegills preserved in this way are eaten as a starter, along with a shot of vodka.
The mild-tasting species can be eaten raw, thinly sliced in salads, if found in top quality condition. Otherwise they are great fried in a 50/50 mixture of olive oil and butter, and go well with steak or sausages, or in stews and casseroles.
If you want to get seriously into edible brittlegills then you really need a good book (my book Edible Mushrooms covers over 30 of them), but here is an introduction to some of the most important, all of which can be found locally.
The Charcoal Burner (Russula cyanoxantha)
The most famous and popular edible brittlegill. Two things distinguish it from relatives. Firstly its gills aren’t brittle – they feel “greasy”, and will flip like the pages of a book without breaking. Secondly it usually has a multicoloured cap (green, purple, grey and pink). Found in deciduous woodland, especially with oak and beech.
Ochre Brittlegill (Russula ochroleuca)
One of the two really common brittlegills – you are bound to find it. While edible, it does not rank among the best. Found in various types of woodland, and always a dull yellow.
Common Purple Brittlegill (Russula atropurpurea)
One of many purple-themed brittlegills, tasting very slightly hot. Has a few relatives with purple-flushed stems that taste very hot (these need special preparation). Not as common as the Ochre Brittlegill, but quite easy to find. Slightly poisonous raw.
Beechwood Sickener (Russula nobilis)
The red and pink brittlegills are the most famous for making people sick, and if you eat them raw or don’t parboil them then you are likely to be quite ill for a few hours. The Sickener (R. emetica) always grows with pine. The Beechwood Sickener is a close relative, is always found with beech trees, and is very common locally.
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