Twice during the week I have managed an ambrosial start to the day, held back from more regular gluttony only by the fact that mushrooms are so thin on the ground in our part of the country. Why do we not have more? Even now local fanciers, disappointed and chagrined by the dearth, are debating the matter keenly. Some say that we have not yet had enough rain - and maybe they are right.
After that scorching summer, we thought we were in for a bumper crop. As I understand it, heat is the one thing that mushrooms need and, in the wild, do not often get. In sustained hot weather the mycelium, or white fibrous root structure, grows strongly beneath the ground; then, come rain and a fall in temperature, it throws up fruit in the form of mushrooms. Most summers are too cool for it to perform with much vigour, but surely, after all those blazing days, it should be in tip-top form?
Reports from other areas such as West Wales and the Home Counties suggest that in some places it is. On my sister's farm in Berkshire one field has defied human assault to produce a tremendous crop. Blitzed with herbicide in the spring, left bare all summer because it was too hard to plough, then covered with dung from the farmyard, it still has a rock-like surface: yet mushrooms have forced their way up through the muck and straw in thousands.
In 1976 - the last summer comparable with the one just gone - the effect of autumn rain was astonishing. Until the middle of September there was not a mushroom in sight. Then, after weeks of drought, came downpours, and the fields simply turned white. Word spread to the village that one meadow in particular was carpeted. People arrived on foot, on bicycles, by car, bearing plastic bags, baskets and buckets. The prospect dumbfounded them, for they could fill any receptacle without moving. Had they brought pick-up trucks or even lorries, they could have filled them as well.
It was altogether too much. Soon people were fed to the gills with fungi. After a few days they felt that they never wanted to see a mushroom again. Besides, with such superabundance, the thrill went out of the sport: the quarry was just too easy to find. It is the elusive and mysterious nature of wild mushrooms that normally makes their pursuit so rewarding.
This year we are in no danger of being spoilt. On the contrary, the shortage of prey has restored the excitement of the hunt and brought out the worst in competitors. Everybody, I suspect, has two or three favourite places in his or her mind's eye, and everybody gives evasive or positively misleading information about them is questioned. "No, no," one says apologetically, when a hunter returns empty-handed. "I meant you to turn left after you'd gone through that gate, not right . . ."
In no other pursuit does the maxim "first come, first served" apply so literally. All practitioners worth their salt are out soon after dawn, and all carry knives with which to cut off the bottoms of the stalks, thereby leaving behind the earth, mud and grass which infuriate the cook if brought home.
Why get so worked up? I hear someone asking. Why creep furtively about the fields in the half-light, griping with apprehension and jealousy? If you must have mushrooms, why not go and buy some from the nearest supermarket?
Such questions miss the point, which is that in searching for wild food one reverts for a while to the primitive activity on which our ancestors' lives depended. To travel back into the distant past not only produces a delicious breakfast: it also renews contact, in a thoroughly therapeutic manner, with an earlier and far less frenetic stage of our evolution.
From `The Independent', Saturday 30 September 1989. The Law Report returns tomorrowReuse content