"You would have thought purple would be easy to spot in the forest," said fungi expert, Iona Fraser. But it's not. I had always thought of autumn's colours as being red and orange with splashes of yellow, but the forest floor was a mass of colours of all hues, making the amethyst deceivers we were looking for almost impossible to find.
We were on a fungi foraging course at the Shovelstrode Forest Garden in Sussex, ten strangers sharing an interest in the vast and extraordinary world of mycelium. I had assumed that the course would focus on edible varieties, but Iona's passion went far beyond that. With a knowledge that belied her years, she turned upon each specimen excitedly, reeling off Latin names, common names, medicinal uses and folklore as though they were imprinted at the forefront of her mind.
"The descriptions in your book are much more important than the pictures," she told us, encouraging us to try the 'chew and spit' method on an innocent looking fungus. The birch brittle gill left a numbing, tingly sensation on the end of my tongue, and I spat quickly. "It's not edible, but it's safe to taste without swallowing," Iona assured us. Still, I'm not sure I would do it on my own.
But the message was clear. Safe fungi foraging depends on the gatherer using all of her senses. Other species smell of rotten crab or potato peelings, and the way to tell a real chanterelle from a fake one – apart from a difference in yellow shade- is that the real thing always has a smooth surface. An eye for detail is certainly key. How does the stem attach to the cap? Does it have a wavy edge? Is it smooth or rough? What does it smell like? Is the stem tapering or straight? Are the gills spore bearing or porous? These are the questions Iona encouraged us to ask as we strolled through the Ashdown Forest and I was astounded by just how many varieties there were hiding beneath the leaves.
Most of them were inedible, but Iona didn't let us dwell on that. Some have other uses. Crampballs that grow on ash will take a spark, meaning they can be used to light fires and even as the sole fuel for cooking. Razerstrop fungus has antibacterial properties and can be used to sharpen knives and the honey fungus does the culling job in weak trees.
But the biggest point that Iona wanted to get across was the same point made by anyone who knows about fungi gathering. You should never eat anything without being certain of what it is. Iona brought a selection of books for us to browse, amongst them Mushrooms by Roger Phillips. "Even experts get it wrong sometimes," she warned us. It is always better to not eat something that may have been delicious than to eat something that may kill you. But on a more positive note, some edible mushrooms are very hard to confuse with anything else.
And in a surprisingly short space of time, we did manage to find some eaters. Shaggy inkcaps, amethyst deceivers and wood hedgehogs are easy to identify, and I feel confident in searching for them myself now. We also found chanterelles, ceps and charcoal burners that Iona placed in her basket for us to sample at the end of the day.
Back at Shovelstrode, Iona began cooking and I went for a walk. Shovelstrode has been open since May 2011 and in its second year of running courses it appears to be flourishing. Owners, Lisa and Charles inherited the land from Lisa's family and it spans six acres, three and a half of which are set aside to ancient woodland. Much of the surrounding woodland has now been lost, making what remains feel even more special. The couple both worked in the television industry, but tiring of life in London, they yearned to get back to nature. So Charles re-trained in landscape gardening, and after some time, the idea of creating a forest garden was born.
The forest garden itself is still in its early stages, but it's positioning is perfect. Set between the house and the woods, the garden incorporates a large pond that will eventually become a natural swimming pool. Charles has already planted some fruit trees on mounds that he built to add interest and edge to the shape of the land. Alongside the trees he has planted green and white clover and blue lupins to fix nitrogen in the soil. He intends to plant the shrub layer next.
But Shovelstrode is more than just a forest garden. It's an educational centre. Beyond the garden, I found another course in full swing. Charles teaches green woodworking and I stopped to admire a chair that its maker was putting the finishing touches to. Charles was in his element there, and his excitement came through as he showed me a collection of stools, chairs, spoons and bowls all made in his workshop.
Throughout the year, a vast selection of courses run at Shovelstrode, covering everything from carving and weaving to vegetable growing and beekeeping. Participants can even stay in one of two beautifully kitted out yurts, warmed by a wood burning stove. The couple encourage visitors, and something in the air feels peaceful.
I rejoined my group at the end of the day, just as Iona was adding the finishing touches to a risotto. Dotted with the colourful array of Ashdown Forest mushrooms, the risotto warmed me to the core. I sat back and looked upon the land that Charles and Lisa have stewardship over, thinking what a lovely way this is to live.
The next fungi foraging course is due to run on 18th October. For more information contact: www.forestgarden.info