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Weekly Edition 038: Saturday 17th November 2001

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Island Ecology
by José P Ribas

The Magic of Mushrooms - Part Two

There is a real madness for the islanders about going out to the forest hunting for the "pebrasus" mushroom feast.

We adore cooking and eating this specific mushroom in different ways and recipes, though there is not a proper tradition for the "Fungus Culture" in the Balearic Islands.  There is a little bit more in Mallorca, but nothing like there is in the Basque Country, Catalan Country or in most of France.

For instance, here in Ibiza, there are very few who know - even among the old, almost professional mushroom hunters - that what we call pick up, cook and eat as an only and singular species, "Pebrasus" (some even use this word for all kinds of mushrooms).

It is in fact, three different species of "lactarius", "Lactarius sanguifluus", "Lactarius semi-sanguifluus" and "Lactarius vinosus", very similar species that grow at the same time, with the same climatic conditions and in the same environment, the dry Mediterranean forest, with mostly pine trees where they grow in symbiosis with their roots.

The differences among them are very subtle. The best way to find out is the colour of the "milk", the "Latex" that all "lactarius" contain. It shows when you cut or break them. ("Lactarius" with white or yellowish latex are bitter or pepperish, some a little bit poisonous and not edible).

It varies from saffron or carrot colour ("semi-sanguifluus") to dark, with greenish reflections, red wine of the "vinosus" (the other differences are to be seen in the microscope, the spores etc.). If you ask to locals the reason for this, most probably they will answer that this is something to do with the place where "pebrasus" grow, with the colour of the clay of the ground.

They may be right in part, some grow better than others in different areas, but the fact is that there are three difference species ("gourmets" say that the ones with darker latex have a sharper, stronger taste).   

Perhaps it will be good to know (good at least for this exclusive mushroom, so they don't have to support all the pressure just on them) that there are a lot of profitable ones in our fields and forests, some with a lovely taste and texture, real "delicatessen" standard if they are cooked properly, that are being ignored by the great majority of us, basically because this fact is unknown and also because, for so many years, there were plenty of the proper "pebrasus", and they could be used for any recipe with mushrooms in it, even eaten raw in salads; there was no need for using "second division" ones. 

There is also a "black legend" about poisonous toadstools; you don't eat a wild mushroom if you are not two hundred per cent sure of what you eat. Obviously this is a very good advice; much better to be safe than sorry.

In all of Spain, according to the statistics, there are six to ten people killed by eating poisonous toadstools every mushroom season, though none on Ibiza, as far as we know, basically because the great majority only collect "pebrasus" and they cannot be confused. Most of the victims are young children, by accident, far more of the victims, of any age, need medical assistance for no fatal intoxication, even from edible ones, because mushrooms contain proteins and a lot of water (ninety five per cent in some cases), but they go off very quickly if not kept properly.  Mushrooms have to be eaten fresh, like fish.

In Ibiza, I know of three cases in my neighbourhood, none of them fatal. The first one was two sisters and a brother, from six to ten years old. They were playing, picking up mushrooms like grown-ups do, imitating their mother cooking, they ate some raw "boletus", edible if they are properly cooked, but indigestible and a little bit toxic if eaten raw.

They were sick for a day or two, but the second case was more serious. Two brothers, five and six, ate, directly from the ground, a very common, small and pretty mushroom, with a sweetish taste, "lepiota" that grows by their house.

This type of toadstool is one of the most poisonous in this part of the world, the worst one we have on the Island.

They spent over two weeks in hospital; no doubt they would have died if they had eaten more of them.

The third case I know even better: it was myself (twice) in my younger experiments, but I feel a little bit embarrassed to speak about it.  There are different types and levels of fungus intoxication, always according to personal sensibility and health, but if symptoms appear within the first hour or two after eating them, don't panic. Normally it is not a very dangerous intoxication.

So, what is to be recommended to anybody who is interested in enjoying Nature this way and to anybody who lives by the forest, especially with young children, is to have a good mushrooms & toadstools guide-book. It is better to have one specific to your own country. Read it (of course!) and take it with you on your country walks.

Start with "the bad ones" and make sure that you can recognise the ones that can really do damage and make sure that children understand the danger of them as well. There are not so many on this island - twelve, fifteen at the most - which can be classified as really dangerous to everybody. 

In Ibiza and Formentera we don't have the most poisonous "amanitas" (there are no records of them in the last thirty years) "Amanita phalloides", "Amanita verna", "Amanita pantherina", common in Mallorca and Menorca.

In fact, our fatal and most dangerous mushrooms are quite small, three to six centimetres, ten at the very most, the diameter of its hat, such as "Lepiota rhodorrhiza", "Lepiota cristata" "Lepiota josserandii" and very similar species, that contain a big concentration of "amanitina", one of the fatal toxins of the "amanitas".

Another group of our dangerous poisonous toadstools is "Mycena pura" and "Mycena rosea," also common and small, up to seven centimetres at most. They contain "muscarina", as well as "Clitocybe dealbata" and most of the small, whitish "inocybes," "Inocybe fastigiata" "Inocybe heimii," "Inocybe geophylla" or "Panaeolus sphinctrinus" that grow on cow manure. These species provoke a serious neuro-toxic intoxication, but "never" fatal.

There are also several species of "russulas", "cortinarius", "entolomas" "hebelomas", "hypholoma" and others, such as "Pleurotus olearia" that give, or can give serious gastro-enteritis, kidney and liver problems.  Some can become fatal if a sick person eats too much of them. Others which taste good are only poisonous if eaten raw, "giromitra", "hevella," some "boletus" or, only if mixed with wine or any alcoholic drink, "Coprinus atramentarius" etc. (It can help the hospital, in case of food or drink intoxication, especially toadstools, to save some vomit in a plastic bag and take it along with the patient). 

It is also to be recommended not to eat too much of any mushroom, especially if it is the first time or a new one. There are people very allergic to some of them, especially if mushrooms are old and not very fresh. Even the best ones can give indigestion to some.

Mushrooms can also absorb and concentrate in them heavy metals from the ground, such as lead, cadmic, mercury, copper, selenium and others. It is when there is a high pollution of these minerals in the area where they are collected, near big factories, by the side of roads, rubbish, etc., that eating mushrooms can become a health problem for its accumulation in the human body.

(To be continued next week)


Lactarius vinosus (Edible)

Lactarius semisanguifluus (Edible)

Lepiota josserandii (Deadly Poisonous)

Lepiota cristate (Poisonous)

Lepiota rhodorrhiza (Poisonous)

Inocybe geophylla (Poisonous)

Inocybe rimosa (Poisonous)

Mycena pura (Poisonous)

Mycena rosea (Poisonous)
José P Ribas

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