Raymond Blanc grows his own mushrooms. At his Michelin-starred Oxfordshire hotel, Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, he has turned a drainage ditch into a "vallee de champignons" where fungi are grown on hardwood logs. The former ditch now provides a steady supply of gourmet mushrooms, including king oyster, for his guests.
The pursuit of the best ingredients leads many chefs to get their hands dirty, yet Blanc is alone in his dedication to DIY fungi production. Antonio Carluccio, a man obsessed with mushrooms from the age of seven, the author of two books on the subject, has never been moved to try a spot of home mycoculture. "Sometimes I use cultivated mushrooms in my cooking," he concedes. "But I always add dried porcini or ceps to give a flavour of the woods."
For many, the joy of mushrooms will always be inseparable from the joy of mushrooming, the thrill of finding your dinner growing out of a tree stump. However a small band of British mycophiles is slowly convincing the food establishment that cultivated mushrooms don't have to taste like cardboard. Blanc is their most high-profile disciple to date.
Adrian Ogden has been running his grow-your-own mushroom business, Gourmet Woodland Mushrooms, for 10 years. He sells kits to amateur enthusiasts and provides supplies and expertise to small-scale commercial growers.
"Home-grown mushrooms can be as good as wild ones," he says. "In this country, shop-bought oyster mushrooms tend to be grown in the dark and they end up pallid and grey. If you grow them yourself, they have a completely different colour, flavour and texture."
Of the 10,000 species of mushroom thought to exist in the world, only 100 have been cultivated and only three are commonly grown in the UK – button, shiitake and oyster. All three grow on dead plant matter and it is this type of fungus which is more amenable to cultivation. Species which grow on living plants – such as chanterelles and truffles – are understandably harder to tame.
Ogden has experimented with many methods of mushroom production. However, his most successful involves growing oysters on paperback books. "The book is eaten away by the mushrooms in front of your eyes," he says. "It only takes seven to 14 days. I got the idea from seeing a photo of mushrooms growing on a mushroom textbook."
The Book Recycler Kit is now his top seller and he says there's been a steady increase in sales of all his products over the last 10 years. "I get a lot more knowledgeable questions now," he says. "Recently people have started to ask about maitake mushrooms, which we call hen of the woods. It is rarely cultivated in this country but can fetch up to £60 per kilo."
There can be money in mushrooms, however it's clear that most growers aren't motivated by the hope of making a quick buck. For Ogden, it was a question of satisfying his curiosity. "When you grow mushrooms you see them develop from a pinhead to something that's ready to pick," he says. "You'd have to sit and stare at a tree for weeks to see that in the wild."
Ogden says the growing process can be fraught with difficulty and that some of his best results have been achieved through benign neglect. This is a technique which has in fact been favoured by fungi fanatics for centuries. Shiitake have been grown in China since as early as 1100. Notched logs are placed near logs where mushrooms are growing naturally and eventually the spores drift across. This method is – not surprisingly – very unreliable, and it wasn't until the Pasteur Institute in Paris managed to produce sterilised mushroom spawn in the 1890s that large-scale production of a few species was made possible. The truth is that even with the machinery of modern science at our disposal, we are still struggling to understand the mysteries of the mushroom.
However, this doesn't put off those like Ogden and inspired by his story of trial, error and decomposed Penguin classics, I decide to see if I can grow some gourmet fungi myself. Several amateur mycologists run courses and I join a one-day workshop organised by the Low Impact Living Initiative in Bristol.
The day is aimed at people who are already myco-curious and assumes a willingness to devote significant time and energy to the pursuit of the perfect mushroom. My fellow course-goers are a lovely bunch, one of whom once got three points on his licence for stopping on the hard shoulder to collect puffballs.
The workshop begins with a short introduction to the sex life of fungi and it soon becomes clear why ancient and modern man has been so intrigued by these organisms.
Mushrooms are the fruit of underground networks called mycelium. An individual network can extend for miles. In 1998, a honey fungus was discovered in Oregon which occupied 2,384 acres of soil. It is thought to be 2,400 years old but may be much older.
The aim of the course is to manage to grow some mycelium – which looks like white fluff – and then persuade it to produce some mushrooms.
This is not all that easy. The problem is that mankind knows very little about how fungi interact with other organisms. As a result, the only reliable way to grow a particular fungus is to isolate it from every other living thing. In other words, you've got to create a sterile environment.
The course tutor, Anthony Armitage, has developed some rather ingenious ways of doing this at home. Like Ogden, he is an extraordinarily dedicated enthusiast motivated by a desire to understand the fungus kingdom in greater depth and willing to devote hours to the quest to grow enough to sprinkle on a slice of toast.
"I started growing my own mushrooms 15 years ago," he says. "I'd been interested in them since I was a teenager and I first went out hunting for them. I suppose I wanted to know if it could be done. It was about the technical challenge."
The first step is to make a DIY laboratory out of a plastic storage box. You cut two holes in the front to put your arms through, sterilise the inside with bleach solution and then secure the top with a plastic sheet and rubber bands.
The next step is rather more difficult and this is where you need a strong passion for mushrooms to carry you through. It involves buying or making your own agar for the mycelium to grow on. This is then put into a petri dish and sterilised. The easiest way to sterilise things is to pressure cook them and a household pressure cooker will do.
Once the petri dish is cool, you wash and dry your arms up to your elbows, put on a pair of marigolds straight from the packet and put the petri dish in your DIY lab. Next, take a button, oyster, shiitake or enoki mushroom, swab the top with alcohol, take a sterilised scalpel (you can sterilise it over a flame), peel back the skin of the mushroom, cut out a little bit of the flesh and pop it on your petri dish.
In sum, it is a little like performing a minor operation. I have a go and when I look at my petri dish a few days later I see that I have grown some blue fluff. This is rather beautiful but unlikely to put any food on my table in the near future. Anthony, by contrast, has had a lot of success over the years and says he regularly grows a couple of kilos of enoki and oyster mushrooms.
It seems mother nature only gives up her fungal secrets to the dedicated and diligent. For dilettantes like me, DIY kits are the better option. I order my Book Recycler Kit and it arrives by first-class mail. Best results are apparently achieved by using a paperback book between 250 and 300 pages long and I decide to sacrifice a minor Stella Gibbons novel.
As instructed, I soak the book in warm water, spread the mushroom spawn throughout, put it in a warm place with indirect sunlight and water it every day with a plant mister. In two weeks or so it should produce some gourmet oyster mushrooms and I can't wait.
The only question now is how to eat them. Ogden recommends stir-frying them in vegetable oil with a dash of soy sauce and serving as a gourmet pizza topping or in a pitta bread with a leafy salad. However, I think I might just have them on toast.
Grow-your-own mushroom kits
Button mushrooms are the most commonly-cultivated fungi in this country and grow-your-own kits can be bought from many garden centres. The mushrooms must be kept moist and may need to be moved from warmer to cooler rooms as they develop, but otherwise it's just a question of watching them grow for a few weeks. Greenfingers.com
Cultivated in China for almost 1,000 years, shiitake mushrooms can nevertheless be unpredictable. However, Ardnamushrooms has developed a "ready-to-pop" kit which produces mushrooms within a week. All the incubation has been done already so you just have to "cold-shock" the kit on arrival by putting it outside or in the fridge overnight. Ardnamushrooms.co.uk
Gourmet Woodland Mushrooms has come up with an innovative method of growing the king tuber oyster mushroom which is native to Nigeria. You plant the mushroom "bulb" in a plant pot, cover it with the plastic dome supplied and keep it in a warm, light area for two weeks. Gourmetmushrooms.co.uk
It's also possible to buy logs which have been inoculated with spores from oyster or shiitake mushrooms. These should be placed outside in a shady place and can be encouraged to produce more mushrooms by immersing them in a bucket of cold water for 48 hours. One log can produce a crop of mushrooms for several years. Whitewoodcrafts.co.uk
Lion's mane, maitake and chicken-of-the-woods
If you have a little outside space, you can also experiment with more exotic types of fungi. Ann Miller's Speciality Mushrooms supplies dowels, or pegs, "colonised" with unusual species including lion's mane, maitake and chicken-of-the-woods. To use the dowels, drill holes in a hardwood log and insert the pegs. Annforfungi.co.uk