The little I know about mushroom hunting I’ve learned from Peter Mayle’s "Provence" books. Mushroom hunting is practically an art, and it takes someone skilled to do it well. When certain wild mushrooms are in season, particularly truffles, hunters can become very competitive and secretive when going out the hunt. Truffles and many other mushrooms can’t be cultivated. They only grow in the wild on their own terms. Those who know how to find them can earn some good money selling them.

This year in Italy, the wild mushroom crop is expected to be a good one. According to Yahoo, “a combination of August thunderstorms and hot weather has led to a bumper mushroom crop.” It’s also led to a bumper crop of deaths.

Seventeen wild mushroom hunters have accidentally died because of carelessness, and one hunter is still missing. Trying to keep their sources secret from other hunters, mushrooms hunters have been wearing camouflage and hunting in the dark. Most of the hunters who have died have slid off steep, damp slopes in the northern mountains of Italy. The Italian papers are calling it “The Massacre of the Mushroom Hunters.”

I can only guess that many of those killed in Italy weren’t skilled mushroom hunters. It has me thinking about the growing popularity of food foraging here in the United States and how novice foragers need to take proper safety measures — even if they aren’t wearing camouflage and hunting near slippery slopes in the dark.

People hunt for wild mushrooms here in the United States, and foraging for other wild foods like nettles, berries, greens, and herbs is becoming increasingly popular as the sustainable food movement grows.

If you’re interested in hunting for wild mushrooms or foraging for other wild foods, here on some tips to help keep you safe.

  • Get a guide — a real live guide. There are experienced mushroom hunters and food foragers who offer guided tours. They will show you where good sources of wild foods are, how to identify nonpoisonous, edible foods, and how to properly harvest them.
  • Be 100 percent sure that food you forage is safe. If you aren’t sure, don’t eat it.
  • Forage with a friend.
  • Buy a guidebook to help you identify edible plants.
  • It’s better to stay away from mushrooms unless you are 100 percent sure they are safe, even if you’ve identified them in a guidebook. They can be particularly deadly.
  • You can take wild mushrooms to some experts who will identify them for you (like this guy in Pennsylvania). If you are going mushroom hunting, hunt down one of those experts before you hunt down any mushrooms.
  • Dress appropriately. Wear sturdy, protective shoes. If you’ll be going into an area where plants will be close together, consider long pants and sleeves to avoid getting scratches from other plants.
  • Stay away from foods on the sides of heavily traveled roads. They may be heavily loaded with exhaust fumes and other toxins.
  • If you’re going to eat foods that you’ve never eaten before, always have some Benadryl or other antihistamine with you just in case you discover that you are allergic to something. This is one reason why having a friend with you is important. If you do have a severe reaction, you have someone to help you. 
Any food foragers reading this? What safety tips do you have to add?

Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.

Mushroom hunting turns deadly in Italy
As foraging for food becomes more popular, how can novices make sure they stay safe?