Fungi are amazing organisms, and from experience they can be delicious too! But some fungi also contain deadly toxins. Nicholas Evans, the author of the Horse Whisperer, is all too aware of this after he accidentally picked deadly webcap mushrooms on a foraging trip to the woods. Kate Lamble spoke to him about his experiences.
Kate - Last time we met Nicholas, I was working on a TV book show and in order to get the interview, I remember that we had to arrange this mad dash on a motorbike across London.
Nicholas - You remember that.
Kate - I do.
Nicholas - It was terribly exciting.
Kate - It was, but it was in order to get you to something a bit more serious, to dialysis. Thankfully, I hear you're better now, but can you tell me a bit about how you got so ill in the first place?
Nicholas - My wife and I and our young son who was 6 years old at the time went to visit her relatives in Scotland and while we were there, we were told by somebody who lived there that there were some fabulous ceps and chanterelles growing in the woods.
Nobody else seem to be interested in going, so I walked up the track and went into this wood and there they were, just two kinds of mushrooms growing there and I know chanterelles well from lots of times that I've been there before. The other mushrooms which were supposedly ceps looked a bit different from the ceps that I had picked probably about 12 years before with a friend here in Devon where I live. I thought, well maybe it’s a variety that’s slightly different from the ones that grow down south. So anyway, I picked them. We prepared them and I cooked them in a bit of butter and with the chanterelles, and some parsley which is what I would normally do. Thank God! The 4 children who were eating with us 4 adults had the good sense not to eat any of the mushrooms. They didn’t taste terribly good actually. They tasted kind of earthy, but they were okay enough for both of the men, Alastair, Charlotte’s brother and myself to have a second helping.
Kate - How much did you know about mushrooms and mushroom picking beforehand because we’ve got quite a phobia of going out and do that in the UK at least? The mushrooms that we eat are quite limited. Did you feel comfortable enough to go out and sort of feel like you knew what you were doing when you were choosing the mushrooms?
Nicholas - I've normally, ever since I was a kid, with my dad, picked field mushrooms. To be honest, I haven't through my life picked much that's exotic. I've cooked and eaten little tiny putballs which are fantastic, the occasional parasol mushroom, but most things, I wouldn’t touch because I just would not feel confident of them. And even if I picked them, I’d come back and identify them, but I would throw them away. But on this occasion, it was a case of two people, each believing the other knew what he or she was doing.
It turned out that the lady who told me that they were ceps had always called all brown mushrooms ceps. And when she told us that the next day when we were starting to vomit and have diarrhoea, we all kind of gasped a bit. Had it not had such tragic consequences, it would have been a really interesting case of passing the trust to somebody else; you just believe what the other person is saying and suspend your own natural sort of protective instincts.
Kate - And that moment of trusting in somebody else’s judgment, how quickly did you know that something wasn’t right and that they weren’t ceps?
Nicholas - The next morning, Alastair started to feel sick and then as the day went on, my wife Charlotte started feeling odd and then by about mid-afternoon, I started feeling a little bit weird. And then it all started to develop very, very quickly and by the end of the next day, all four of us were in Elgin Hospital.
Kate - How long did it take for the hospital to work out that it was the mushrooms?
Nicholas - We had this family doctor came around and we knew pretty well actually what they were. I mean, we looked in the book the very next morning when Alastair started feeling ill and Charlotte was already ill. It was so clear from the photograph that what we had eaten, it wasn’t a cep. It was themushroom called cortinarius speciosissimus which some people call the deadly webcap apparently. It had a rather comforting skull and cross bones underneath it, with a little caption, deadly poisonous.
Kate - How did you react when you saw that? I imagine, I would have just been terrified.
Nicholas - We knew something was going on obviously and there was a sort of mounting fear, but it wasn’t like as a panic. We thought it would be sorted. We thought we’d just get like a severe case of food poisoning. We didn’t know exactly what this mushroom does and unlike some other mushrooms which actually, in a sense I suppose are more dangerous because they attack all of your organs, often the liver, this cortinarius speciosissimus is very choosy. It just heads straight for the kidney and closes your kidney down, and we were being prepared for dialysis pretty much straight away. You stop peeing almost immediately or a couple of little drops. I didn’t pee for 3 years after it actually untill I got a transplant. And just shocking sickness for the first week, I really wanted to die. We all did actually and it was only the thought of our little 6-year-old boy that really kept me and my wife alive. It would’ve been much better to surrender to it and go actually.
Kate - As I say, the last time I saw you, you were on dialysis and that was quite a while after the initial incident. How long did you remain on dialysis and the problems went on for?
Nicholas - I started taking a toll my heart, the dialysis puts your heart under tremendous pressure and that’s when although my daughter Lauren had offered right from the start, as had all of my kids, even Finlay who was 10 years old by then and 9 years old and it was only when my heart was in trouble and my daughters said, “Dad, you really got to wake up. You're going to take my kidney.” She said, “I'm not being wonderfully unselfish. I'm being really selfish. I just like you to be around when I have kids and get to meet them.” And so, we did it and my life completely changed. I was just – I discovered about a month after the transplant what I used to feel like and then Charlotte had her transplant a year after mine and she is now wonderfully fit and well, and we are back to normal.
Kate - What's your advice for anyone who goes out wild picking like you did?
Nicholas - The advice which I have always followed except for this one isolated and absolutely catastrophic occasion is that you should never eat anything without checking first in a very good mushroom book. Mushrooms go through different phases as they grow, so it’s important to have a picture and text on the various stages of growth. A mushroom that comes out of the ground looks often quite sort of closed in on itself and then it can spread and become something that looks almost altogether different. So, you have to be sure of what you're eating and if you don’t, you're like we were, foolish.