Daniel Butler met me in a car park in Rhayader with his scampering little dog Poppy, a basket under his arm and the chunkiest wellies I’d ever seen. He had rosy cheeks, muddy fingernails, and an enthusiastic glint in his eye. I sensed right there and then that I was going to spend my day with a man on a mission – to turn me into a mushroom forager for life.
He whisked me away to the start of his favourite foraging walk, filling my head with enough trivia about the Elan Valley to make me think I was on an episode of QI. After a five-minute drive in his company, I knew how many days’ water was in the local reservoirs to quench the thirsts of the one million Brummies they pipe to, hundreds of miles away. I knew that the Elan dams were completed in 1904 after the demolition of the local chapel and grizzly relocation of the graves. I knew that mycology – the study of fungi – was only about 100 years old and, prior to that, there was no literature about mushrooms at all.
Midway through telling me his theory about why we Brits are so squeamish about wild mushrooms, something caught his eye and he slammed his feet on the brakes. With his acute foraging vision, he’d spotted some yellowy, frilly looking fungus in the grass along the roadside. To me, they looked like soggy cornflakes.
“These are chanterelles,” Daniel said. “Absolutely delicious. Have a sniff of them.” They smelled strongly of dried apricots. He told me chanterelles were one of the top five tastiest mushrooms, best cooked in butter with scrambled eggs on toast. My stomach grumbled. I wanted a brunch break.
Our walk took us up the gentle slopes of Gro Hill, skirting peppery smelling woodland with views out over the Caban-Coch Reservoir and distant Cambrians. Daniel pointed out some false chanterelles that, from a distance, look almost the same as true chanterelles, and tend to grow in the same areas.“In modern guidebooks, false chanterelles are labelled as poisonous, but in truth it would take 40 years of eating them to have any serious effect,” Daniel said. Looking at the underside gills of the true and false chanterelles up close, it was clear to see the difference between them.
We found lots of edible mushrooms, but I learned that Daniel is picky about what he forages. “What’s the point in picking something that’s edible but not very tasty?” he said, discarding a bitter-tasting russula after taking a little bite of its edge. I had a bite too, feeling like Alice in Wonderland with the smoking caterpillar. I didn’t shrink or grow into a giant.
It was the cep we were keeping our eyes peeled for. Also known as the porcini or penny bun for its freshly baked appearance, it is one of the more tasty fungi commonly found on woodland edges and hedge bottoms. A guaranteed way of finding one is to look for the fly agaric, the bright red, hallucinogenic mushroom, which is an indicator of ceps close by. Unfortunately, we didn’t spot a single one.
We did, however, flop on to our bellies in the soil to see pine boletes (slippery jacks) and lots of bay boletes, which have a spongy underside that bruises blue when you press it. These were added to our foraged chanterelles in the basket, while Daniel tantalised me with more fungi recipes he had floating around in his head. The two-mile walk proved fruitful; we had a half-full basket, a worn-out dog and empty bellies to contend with. It was time to get cooking.
Daniel’s 17th-century home, up a winding dirt track, was where I sampled dried boletes, ceps and Daniel’s homemade chilli oil. He’d dried his mushrooms simply by threading them on a string and hanging them in a warm room overnight. As well as being a keen forager, he is also an inventive cook – he told me he regularly uses sliced up giant puffballs instead of pasta sheets in a lasagne.
Within minutes, Daniel rustled up a wild bay bolete risotto, which we ate on his sunlit terrace overlooking the valley. The mushrooms were truly delicious – I filled up my plate with seconds. Daniel even sent me away with a tub full of our chanterelles, which I have since fried up with some eggs on buttered toast.
HOW TO GET THERE
Rhayader lies on a crossroads of the A470 and A44, midway between Hereford and Aberystwyth.
Tan-y-cefn, nr Rhayader
The one-day mushroom safari is £30 per person, lunch included. Two-day course £295 per person or £325 on weekends, accommodation included.
Morgans restaurant and bistro
East Street, Rhayader LD6 5BH
This stylish restaurant serves traditional Welsh dishes.
Elan Valley Hotel
Nr Rhayader LD6 5HN
A family-run hotel within half a mile of the Elan dams.
This pretty market town’s name means ‘waterfall on the Wye’ and is the perfect base from which to explore the Elan Valley..