Gone are the days when wild mushrooms were served smothered in cream sauces or sauteed in butter and garlic. Such is their delicacy of flavour that many chefs now place them straight under the grill, brushed with a little olive oil and sea salt. Warm salads, which provide a colourful, leafy backdrop to the sauteed mushroom not unlike its natural habitat, can be made into a feast simply by adding a fried egg. Omelettes, too, are a favourite with mushroom lovers - perhaps because they get up early to reach the hunting grounds and reward themselves with this king of breakfasts.
But how does an early-morning forager tell one variety of mushroom from another, or know which is toxic? In France, it's simply a question of taking them to a local pharmacist for free analysis (though stories abound of three generations of a single family being wiped out by unwise sampling from the cooking pot: 'Meme le chien]').
Of the 40,000 species of mushrooms growing worldwide, only a few hundred are defined as poisonous. Of those, perhaps a dozen are deadly. Most mushrooms are inedible because they are woody, hot or horribly bitter. A colour guide such as Roger Phillips's Mushrooms and Other Fungi of Great Britain and Ireland, published by Macmillan, is useful for identifying your potential supper. The British Mycological Society (address below) organises mushroom forays where useful tips can be learnt.
More timid cooks have to put their faith in farm shops or delicatessens.
Sadly, suppliers of fresh fungi are all too rare. In London, the Neal Street shop run by Antonio Carluccio, author of A Passion for Mushrooms and the man who has done most to popularise fungus as food, is famous for its selection of wild mushrooms. Henrietta Green's A Food Lover's Guide to Britain also lists outlets.
Though Western growers have succeeded in producing exotic oyster mushrooms to order, these have generally been disappointing. Their frilly, shell-like caps are aesthetically pleasing, but they have very little flavour. By contrast, the Shii-take mushrooms cultivated in Japan for 2,000 years are so powerful that they are best not mixed with other types of mushroom.
Ceps or penny buns are often sold dried in delicatessens. Immensely savoury, they are called fungi porcini in Italian - a reference to the way pigs, set loose in the woods to fatten on acorns, prefer to sniff out this delicious boletus. Who can blame them? Like Fistulina hepatica (the beefsteak mushroom) and Laetiporus sulphureus (chicken of the woods), ceps are some of the meatiest mushrooms. When entertaining mixed parties of vegetarians and carnivores, the meat-eaters are often fooled - or at least pacified - by a risotto made with porcini. They are a good substitute for meat-based stock, too. For both purposes you can economise by buying 'briccioloni' (little pieces of dried mushrooms) instead of perfect slices. Only a few are needed: their high water content means they produce a concentrated flavour when dried.
The use of wild mushrooms in British restaurants is growing, and yet you are unlikely to be offered much beyond chanterelles, morels, ceps and a few others. Foragers, on the other hand, can cut huge slices off giant puffballs the size of footballs, fricassee tiny purple amethyst deceivers and stuff game birds with the aptly named horns of plenty. You won't see these on supermarket shelves, but there is a certain satisfaction to be derived from the thought that we cannot reproduce all of Nature. Like blackberries, mushrooms should be free and full of the flavour of the wild.
To enjoy wild mushrooms to the full, cook them simply. This recipe comes from the entre-preneurial chef and restaurateur, Anthony Worrall-Thompson: FRIED MUSHROOM SANDWICH To make one sandwich 1oz unsalted butter 1 shallot, finely diced 1/2 clove garlic, finely sliced 3oz wild mushrooms, finely sliced 11/2 teaspoons soft thyme leaves 1 teaspoon chopped parsley 2 thin slices country bread 2 thin slices buffalo mozzarella salt and ground black pepper butter for frying Pan-fry the shallot, garlic, mushrooms and thyme until soft but not brown; add the parsley and season. Butter the slices of bread. Lay out one slice and top with a slice of mozzarella and some mushrooms. Top this with another slice of cheese and the other slice of bread. Season the sandwich and press the bread slices firmly together; fry in sizzling butter, turning once until golden on both sides.
For information on mushroom forays, send an SAE to the British Mycological Society, PO Box 30, Stourbridge, West Midlands DY9 9PZ.