'September should be spelt with a C'

Ceps and other rare mushrooms are not only tasty, they're also free - if you know where to look
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Until quite recently, eating a freshly picked wild mushroom in Britain was considered tantamount to dicing with death. A few brave souls ventured out to gather field mushrooms for breakfast, but the remaining 101 edible varieties were left to the occasional Continental forager. Then in 1989 Antonio Carluccio published A Passion for Mushrooms (Pavilion), in which he suggested that the British countryside was brimming over with delicious ceps, chanterelles and morels. It ignited a resurgence of interest in eating native fungi, which in turn spawned a new industry in the under-populated, unpolluted wilds of Scotland - mushroom picking.

Until quite recently, eating a freshly picked wild mushroom in Britain was considered tantamount to dicing with death. A few brave souls ventured out to gather field mushrooms for breakfast, but the remaining 101 edible varieties were left to the occasional Continental forager. Then in 1989 Antonio Carluccio published A Passion for Mushrooms (Pavilion), in which he suggested that the British countryside was brimming over with delicious ceps, chanterelles and morels. It ignited a resurgence of interest in eating native fungi, which in turn spawned a new industry in the under-populated, unpolluted wilds of Scotland - mushroom picking.

Dick Peebles, a director of Caledonian Wildfoods in Glasgow, was one of the first to develop this new market in1994. An avid naturalist and enthusiastic mycologist, he left his job as a computer programmer in the oil business, then lost money in a fishing-boat venture and foraged for much of his food in the Scottish highlands while on the dole. On one such expedition he came across a beautiful patch of egg-yolk yellow chanterelles nestling in the damp moss. He gathered them up and, on a whim, took them into the kitchen of the restaurant One Devonshire Gardens in Glasgow. "The head chef nearly grabbed them out of my arms," he recalls. Peebles realised he had stumbled across a new and enjoyable way to earn his living. He hired a car and began his "market research" by picking and selling everything from saffron milk caps ( Lactarius deliciosus) to black trumpet mushrooms ( Craterellus cornucopioides) to local restaurants. Within a few months he had obtained a business start-up grant from the Glasgow Development Agency, and Caledonian Wildfoods was born.

His company has about 750 registered pickers, although only 30 pick regularly. All are self-employed. A diligent picker, working seven days a week in the peak season (August until October), can earn up to £30,000 in a good year. As Peebles wryly explains: "September ought to be spelt with a 'C'; if the cep harvest comes in, all leave is cancelled and you don't have a family. You can earn £1,000 every time you go out." Unfortunately, the Scottish cep harvest has been very poor in the last few years. Chanterelles (also known as girolles, Cantharellus cibarius), however, can be found in abundance north of the Highland boundary fault. One picker harvested 21 and a half tons last year. They are so prolific that even Sainsbury's has started to sell them this month in around 100 stores. A 120g packet costs £2.39. Some stores also offer them loose at £19.99 a kilogram.

The pickers come from all walks of life. Robert Dougherty, another Glaswegian, was in the carpet business. "I got caught up in the recession of 1991," he says, "and Dick introduced me to foraging in the woods. For the first couple of years I read a lot, as it's very important to know what you are doing. There are around 4,000 species of mushrooms, but all you really need to know are the 102 that you can eat. The rest should be consigned to the bin." Like many mushroom pickers, he has his favourite fungi - St George's mushroom - which traditionally appears around 23 April. "You find them in pasture, hidden in the grass," he explains. "The fun is in the finding of them, but when they flush [come up], they flush in style. They have a sensual, mealy smell and taste wonderful flash-fried."

Many pick part-time as a lucrative hobby. Dick Peebles' list includes a travelling mime artist, a local doctor and Nellie Faulks, who describes herself as a lady of leisure. She restricts her mushroom gathering to St George's mushrooms and wood blewitts. "I ride a horse and go hunting," she explains. "When I'm out it gives me a wonderful overview of the fields, and the local farmers then let me return to pick the mushrooms." She is careful to add that she never picks anywhere that might have been sprayed with chemicals.

At least half of the skill involved in mushroom picking lies in locating good sites. Duncan McRay, another old friend of Dick Peebles who, like Robert Dougherty, joined Caledonian Wild Foods at its inception, explains: "You soon learn which sort of terrain, soil types and trees are likely to yield mushrooms. It has taken me six years, but it is almost instinctive now. I can look at a stream running down the side of a hill and know if it will have chanterelles." Even he admits to the thrill of the cep hunt, when you enter the dense, twilight world of the spruce forests. "One day they are not there, and two days later they will literally cover the floor."

Each self-employed picker is paid according to the species, weight and quality of their haul. Field mushrooms are virtually worthless since they have no shelf life, whereas a popular golden chanterelle commands a reasonable price as it can be kept chilled for two weeks. The pickers all have to don hygienic thin blue rubber gloves before picking, trimming and brushing their mushrooms free of dirt with a specially designed knife. They are then placed in regulation slatted boxes which allow the mushroom spores to drift in the wind as they are carried back to the car. "You should never pick a mushroom before its gills have opened up to release its spores," states Dick Peebles. He is a passionate conservationist and has created an extensive database which monitors the location and quantity of each new site they discover in Scotland. It's not just for picking purposes; poisonous species are included, too.

Six years on, and there are already four mushroom-picking centres in Scotland. New companies are, well, mushrooming. Jeff Lawson, for example, has just started Wild Skye, which aside from helping to supply Caledonian Wildfoods is also specialising in selling a wild white, curling mushroom called Angel Wings ( Plurocybella porrigens). Apparently it is a delicacy in America and Canada.

Dick Peebles, meanwhile, is extremely keen to introduce his chefs to the intensely flavoured, bright, yellow-green Canary mushroom ( Tricholoma flavovirens). Who knows, perhaps in a few short years, every supermarket in Britain will be selling them.

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