Death Cap poisoning in Somerset

I had a bit of a lay-in this morning only for the phone to ring at about 8am. It was for me. Somerset local radio had called to tell me that someone had died from eating Death Caps and would I give an interview later in the morning. Not a terribly good start to any day. At 11:45 I duly gave my interview.

Christina Hale, 57, from Bridgwater Somerset, died on the 19th November after eating Death Caps with her husband. Her husband has survived, having eaten a smaller quantity. Several newspapers and websites have covered the story, though the pictures some of them have provided of the "Death Cap" do not look much like Death Caps to me and one of them looks remarkably like the perfectly edible Blusher, Amanita rubescens. Here is a picture I took for my book which shows all the important characteristics, olive green cap, white gills, ring on the stem, bag at the base:




  I shudder when I hear about serious fungus poisonings but fortunately they are very rare occurrences. The last death from Death Cap poisoning was a lady on the Isle of Wight who perished after eating a substantial amount of the fungus in 2008. I remember giving a radio interview for that as well. Nevertheless it is terrible thing to die for a meal and it must give us all pause.

I have been eating wild mushrooms for thirty-five years or so and consumed around 120 different species. I have never had so much as hiccups. But I am neither lucky, nor particularly clever, I am just very, very careful. With those who do eat something deadly I always ponder what it is that went wrong.

That some wild fungi are deadly is no secret, yet I often meet people who say "Yes, I know that some are poisonous but none of them will kill you, surely". This misconception can make some careless and they do not go through all the checks to make sure that what they have found is safe to eat. Equally dangerous is a piece of advice I hear repeatedly: if you can peel the skin from a "mushroom" it will be safe. Well you can peel the skin from a Death Cap, making this the most deadly advice of all. Perhaps it is what Christina Hale believed.

The lady from the Isle of Wight had me puzzled at the time but I am reasonably sure I know what went wrong. She hailed from the Far East where the Paddy Straw Mushroom familiar and regularly cultivated. It is of the genus Volvariella and bears many of the characteristics of the Death Cap, not least the "volva" or bag at the base of the stem. It was a tragic case of mistaken identity. This month another tragedy occurred in California where a care worker in a retirement home collected Death Caps, evidently under the same misapprehension. Four died.

Nicholas Evans of "Horse Whisperer" fame provided a terrible example of how easily things can go wrong. He, his family and his brother-in-law's family picked "mushrooms" in Scotland and the four adults suffered renal failure. One recovered but the other three have required continued dialysis and in the case of Mr. Evans, a kidney transplant from his daughter. For a long time I could not understand how things had gone so awry as the fungus they consumed was the Deadly Webcap, Cortinarius rubellus, which does not look remotely like anything edible, especially Ceps which is what Mr Evans thought he was picking. But Mr Evans has bravely spoken of his tragedy. It is the simplest of things - he thought his brother-in-law knew what he was doing and his brother-in-law thought that Mr. Evans knew what he was doing. Cognisant of what can go wrong when wild mushroom dinners are agreed on by consensus I always take charge, deciding myself what can be eaten and, if others are to cook them, escorting them into the kitchen with a stern warning to chef not to go to the basket to get “a couple more of those”.

Things go wrong for an endless variety of reasons but I never worry about the worriers. They are the survivors; they assume that they can easily poison themselves and will take great efforts to study the fungi they collect to determine its name and make sure no one thwarts their careful considerations.

Always the most important thing is to study your putative dinner and determine its name. If you cannot with certainty name something you should not, ever, eat it. Having said that, I always tell people that you do not need to be an expert mycologist to pick mushrooms any more than you need to be an expert botanist to pick blackberries. All you need to do is learn half a dozen good, easily identified species and you are an expert mushroom forager. Here is a list of species in order of difficulty with the easiest first.

Giant Puffball

Cauliflower Fungus

Hedgehog Mushroom

Shaggy Inkcap

Meadow Waxcap


Oyster Mushroom

Trumpet Chanterelle


Penny Bun

Horse Mushroom – but beware of the Yellow Stainer!

Field Mushroom – but beware of the Yellow Stainer!

Field Blewit

Wood Blewit

John Wright: 29th Nov 2012 10:00:00

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