One of the first things I learned from my parents when I was little was not to eat any berries, fruits and mushrooms from the countryside without checking with a grown-up first. The bright crimson holly berries we use to decorate our homes at Christmas may look pretty, but they are poisonous, and so are those of the Yew tree, black bryony, deadly nightshade (pretty obvious, that one), ivy, spindle and woody nightshade.
Although I have been walking in the mountains with my friends picking mushrooms, I haven’t been courageous enough to eat them. And now I have been proven right, because one woman has died, and 28 people have suffered food poisoning after allegedly eating mushrooms at a Michelin-starred restaurant in the eastern Spanish city of Valencia.
Apparently, food safety officers have visited the restaurant and had failed to find any obvious explanation for the poisonings. Samples of dishes from the tasting menu were taken and are being analysed by the National Toxicology Institute.
When I called a health inspector friend to ask him if he had any insider information about this catastrophic occurrence at the Riff restaurant (he didn’t), he told me that these types of restaurants are the most likely to experience these problems because their chefs are more likely to purchase weird and wonderful or rare ingredients which may be more difficult – or expensive – to source by traditional means. Examples that come to mind are sea anemones (I was served these once but gave my portion to someone else…), sea urchins, a great delicacy around here, and other sea-living creatures loved by the locals.
This I know to be true, a few years ago I met a guy who earned a living fishing (driving with a kind of harpoon) and selling the fish he caught to local restaurants. This was illegal, because he was fishing in the marine reserve of Denia, and environmentally irresponsible, because the Mediterranean is already the world’s most overfished sea. He may also have been putting diners at risk, because the fish was not traceable.
If the source of this outbreak turns out to be an illegal product, then I would imagine that the restaurant will be charged with criminal negligence, and quite rightly. It’s one thing to go out and forage things yourself. You know the risks. But when you dine in a restaurant, particularly a swanky, high-class, Michelin-starred establishment, the least you can expect is rigorous compliance with food safety regulations, particularly with regard to potentially fatal raw ingredients.