Outdoors: Wild and free in the woods

Daniel Butler follows a champion fungi-gatherer on a summer foray through the forest
CLIVE HOULDER'S enthusiasm is almost tangible. "The fairy rings are fantastic this year. I'm picking basket after basket and they just keep coming." He is Britain's only full-time wild mushroom collector, and this is turning into his best-ever season.

Although most people think of mushrooms as an autumn crop, Houlder's year starts in April, building up through the summer. "This year it began in March, which is normally pretty bleak, and has just kept going."

As a result, now is a good time for anyone to begin what can easily turn into an obsession. Indeed, already so many people have begun to collect mushrooms that fears have been voiced about over-picking. Houlder dismisses such concerns as baseless:

"A mushroom is no more than a fruiting body - the fungal equivalent of an apple," he says. "So provided you cut them carefully and don't damage the underground structure, they should keep coming up year after year."

Several of the best species are now flushing by the thousand and are there for the taking. Pick of the bunch is undoubtedly the chanterelle, Cantharellus cibarius. Chefs rank it alongside ceps and morels, many claiming its delicate flavour is beaten only by truffles. But while the last are almost impossible to find without a trained dog or pig, chanterelles are there for the taking - once you get the hang of spotting them.

Although bright yellow, this delicate little trumpet of a mushroom can be surprisingly hard to identify as it nestles among the leaf mould. Try scouring the ground in deciduous woodland - beech and chestnut can be particularly good - and the chances are that once one is spotted, further scrutiny will reveal a myriad of tiny golden flecks.

"The first ones are up," says Houlder. "And the first real flush will be here any day."

There is only one species easily confused with the chanterelle: the false chanterelle, Hygrophoropsis aurantiaca. This makes indifferent eating, and is mildly poisonous to a small minority. For a novice the differences can seem slight, but the real McCoy is more golden and its gills, which run down the stalk, frequently rejoin each other after separating. The best test, however, is the smell. The true chanterelle has a distinct aroma of apricots that can be positively overpowering in quantity.

The slight element of doubt of this caveat is certain to put off most beginners. Nil desperandum: there are other unmistakable species on hand. Most obvious is the giant puffball, Langermannia gigantea, which even the most timid budding mycologist will be able to name with certainty. This spherical mushroom can grow to two-and-a-half feet in diameter and - as one guide book points out - the only possible confusion is with a discarded football (unfortunately the latter are all too common in its favoured habitat of nettle-filled hedges and old rubbish tips). These are also coming up early this year.

Chicken of the Woods, Laetiporus sulphureus, is another distinctive species. This is a parasite that grows, plate-like, on the sides of deciduous trees, particularly oak, chestnut and beech. As its Latin name suggests, this is a sulphurous yellow when in prime condition, although later it pales to a chalky white and is decidedly tough and flavourless. If the livid colour of young specimens worries those of a nervous disposition, its great benefit is that it is almost impossible to mistake. If you find a bright yellow dinner-plate stuck to the side of an oak, there are no alternative candidates. Better still, it makes excellent eating, with a good, nutty flavour and firm meaty texture that live up to its name. Indeed, the last is almost its most important gastronomic attribute as - unlike most fungi - it can be casseroled and remain intact.

Most common of all is the purple-brown lobes of Jew's Ear, Auricularia auricula-judae. Its traditional and Latin names derive from its close resemblance to a human ear and the fact it grows on elder, the tree on which Judas reputedly hanged himself.

This fungus grows all year round and, again, is almost impossible to mistake. Its drawback is that it is not the most edible of wild fungi, requiring slow simmering for at least half an hour to break down the rubbery texture. It comes into its own, however, when dried, powdered and used as a flavouring.

Beginners could do worse than start with the fairy ring champignon, Marasmius oreades. This, as its name suggests, grows in dense rings of little fawn caps. It has the advantage of being fairly common and it makes excellent eating. The stalks are tough, however, and harvesting them is a case for scissors rather than the mushroom picker's more usual knife. Unfortunately, there is a similar poisonous species and care should be taken, but the two can easily be told apart by looking at the junction of gills and stem. Marasmius curve back up into the cap, while those of its toxic rival, Clitocybe rivulosa, curve towards the ground.

Meanwhile, Clive Houlder's advice to new wild funghi hunters is to follow some basic rules: "Ask the landowners' permission; always use a knife - this avoids damage to the crucial subsoil structure; and have a really good field guidebook. The last is just to help you sleep - you'll be too scared of making a mistake for there to be any danger."

`How to identify Edible Mushrooms' by Harding, Lyon and Tomblin (Collins, pounds 9.99) is an excellent pocket guide. Beginners may prefer `The Ultimate Mushroom Book' by Peter Jordan and Steven Wheeler (Lorenz Books, pounds 16.95) copies of which are available from TMP, Poppy Cottage, Station Road, Burnham Market, Norfolk PE31 8HA (01328-738841).