Restaurants: Business is mushrooming

Autumn is mushroom season, and the best time to find fungi on the menu. By Nikki Spencer

A few years ago we viewed strangely shaped and named fungi with suspicion; but now it seems that the public has developed quite a taste for wild mushrooms.

With the UK mushroom season in full swing, restaurants all over the country are offering everything from chanterelles, girolles and the rather frightening- sounding trompettes de la mort (so-called not because they kill you but because they look like angels' trumpets) in soups, sauces and main courses.

Watch Masterchef or any other food programme and you'll soon see that everyone uses wild mushrooms now - or so says Antonio Carluccio, who was one of the first to start the trend in Britain.

His Neal Street restaurant (right) and adjoining shop are currently decked out with displays of all sorts of varieties of wild mushrooms, including giant puffballs. These fungi are incorporated into dishes of pasta, fish, beef - everything in fact, except desserts. Although that hasn't always been the case.

"A few years ago I did pickle some chanterelles in vermouth and apricot liqueur to use as a decoration for puddings, but it was more of a gimmick than anything else," Carluccio says.

But it isn't just consuming wild mushrooms that appeals. More and more people are attracted by the thrill of the chase, with mushroom-picking days organised nearly every weekend, particularly in Scotland, Norfolk and the New Forest. Only last weekend dozens of enthusiastic amateurs turned up at the award-winning Chewton Glen Hotel for a day of foraging followed by a feast of fungi.

The hotel is limited to running just one such event each year, due to controls on mushrooming by local authorities, but even at a cool pounds 85 a head it's booked up the moment it is advertised. Business, it seems, is quite literally mushrooming.

Not everyone who appreciates mushrooms is into picking their own. John Swerdlows, chef and proprietor at Helter Skelter in Brixton, always uses wild mushrooms on his menu but prefers to get his supplies from London company Wild Harvest, which started selling mushrooms six years ago from a back room and now has a thriving business supplying hundreds of restaurants. "I find there is something about picking mushrooms yourself that makes you a bit worried about eating them," John Swerdlows reveals.

You understand what he's getting at when Joe Simonini, the deputy manager at Chewton Glen and leader of the hotel mushroom hunt, explains just what they find in the forest.

"We let people pick whatever they want, but then go through their baskets with them. There are always one or two poisonous ones in amongst them. Luckily, they are easily recognisable."

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