FOOD / From the forest floor to the ends of the earth, all year round: Thanks to the obsessive dedication of Jean-Claude Monteil, wild mushrooms are never out of season, writes Joanna Blythman

SOMETHING suspicious is going on in the mushroom trade. Ask regular diners in smart restaurants, or discerning shoppers who frequent specialist food shops: fresh wild mushrooms - once a fleeting pleasure in the peak season around October - are on offer throughout the year.

For those who think of wild mushrooms as a highly unreliable cottage industry, it may come as a shock to discover that they have become big business. If you want to find a culprit, the finger points at Jean- Claude Monteil. Chances are your mushrooms have recently passed through his hands. From his base at Brive, in the Massif Central in France, Mr Monteil buys and sells 1,000 tons of wild mushrooms each year, making him the biggest player in what has become a worldwide wild mushroom market.

It was hard to concentrate when I met him earlier this month. The unmistakable odour of truffles was hanging around his office, emanating from a straw basket of samples. When his uncle opened the door to bring us coffee, the perfume of fungi in the warehouse unit beyond almost knocked me out. 'Marvellous, isn't it?' Mr Monteil says with evident relish.

You have to spend only five minutes with Mr Monteil to appreciate that his life is dedicated to wild mushrooms. Earlier this year, his wife of two decades left him. Being married to someone with a seasonal obsession is one thing, but 18 hours a day, 365 days of the year, is another.

'She gave me an impossible choice. It was her or the mushrooms . . . Of course, it had to be the mushrooms.'

Mr Monteil's is a family business, set up in 1920. Once, the wild mushrooms came only from traditional sources such as France, Italy, Yugoslavia, Hungary and Spain. Nowadays, he gathers in fungi worldwide. This is why he can offer wild mushrooms all the year round.

Turkey, Chile, Portugal and South Africa are becoming important sources, though the quality can vary. Moroccan wild mushrooms, he says, have a tendency to crack because they are too sandy. He enthuses about the excellence of the relative newcomer - Scottish chanterelles. But he also has lots of good things to say about the violet-coloured chanterelles that come now from Zambia and Mozambique, the little girolles that grow under the eucalyptus of Madagascar and, let's not forget, the various varieties that arrive in bulk from the United States and Canada, which Mr Monteil describes as being 'beautiful-looking but short on flavour'.

Wild mushrooms appear in unpredictable flushes and do not respect public holidays or Sundays, so Mr Monteil is organised accordingly. He maintains permanent sorting stations in other European countries, salaried agents farther afield, and a network of buyers who work on a commission basis. His local agent makes it known that she or he is in the market for mushrooms, and people go out looking.

'All sorts of people pick the mushrooms, everyone from office-workers out of hours, retired bank managers, students, the unemployed. My agent estimates the quantity and quality of that particular mushroom flush, does a bit of preliminary sorting out into types, and sends them to me as fast as possible,' he says.

This extensive web of supply means that even in spring and early summer (the natural off-months for mushrooms), Mr Monteil can offer buyers at least four types of true wild mushrooms. In the autumn, that number goes up to 11. The types include both black and summer truffles, smoky morels, fairy ring champignon, St George, ceps (porcini) and boletus of all kinds. There are what we know as chanterelles, and variously coloured members of some family that the French call girolles. There are shepherd's foot, parasol, horn of plenty, saffron milkcap and gyromitra . . . more or less every edible wild mushroom worth eating.

The true wild mushroom supply is backed up by the constant availability of varieties such as shitake, pleurottes and blewits, which have begun to appear on British supermarket shelves over the past few years. Although they look wild, they are in fact cultivated these days. 'Shitakes taste of garlic, the blewits slightly of mint,' says Mr Monteil, 'and pleurottes, well, anis if you are lucky or straw if you are not.'

Mr Monteil exports his mushrooms to every European country plus 15 others, including Japan and the United States. The clientele is exacting, a combination of top restaurants and food emporia and large European supermarket chains.

While I was with Mr Monteil, representatives of a large British mushroom company were there researching the mechanics of importing true wild mushrooms into Britain. Their intention was to sell them to British supermarket chains, where the market for wild mushrooms is relatively undeveloped and therefore promising.

Whether the mushrooms are flown over in a jet, or brought by refrigerated truck (as they are to Britain), the object is to have them leave Brive in the late afternoon, and arrive at their wholesale destination in the early hours of the next morning. Even with such a quick turnaround, Mr Monteil has to be sure the mushrooms are up to it, and that depends on careful selection and handling. The mushrooms arrive at his depot in Brive and are instantly chilled, then graded.

When I visited, literally a truckload of black truffles had just arrived from the north of Spain, the country which, according to Mr Monteil, is the most promising new source of truffles. He had sold 500 kilos just the week before. The workers switched instantly into overdrive, setting up a washing and cleaning line where the rhythmic brushing sound rivalled Carmen's tobacco factory.

Mushrooms that are sound but cannot survive a long journey are dried. Trimmings are made into 'industry' quality stocks, powders and granules. Excess cooking juices from canned mushrooms are canned separately. Absolutely nothing is wasted. Meanwhile, Mr Monteil is on the telephone, talking tactics with a buyer who is currently negotiating prices at one of the weekly truffle markets, this time in nearby Albenque. 'Offer him X and make him sing. Don't go higher than Y. But make sure you get them]' says Mr Monteil.

Mr Monteil's wild mushrooms are distributed in the UK by Porters (071-403 5857).

(Photograph omitted)

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Guru Careers: Dining Room Head Chef

    £32K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Dining Room Head Chef to work for one of ...

    Guru Careers: Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Chef

    £27K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Che...

    Guru Careers: Events Coordinator / Junior Events Planner

    £24K + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an Events Coordinator ...

    Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: Chief Executive Officer

    Salary 42,000: Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: The CEO is responsible ...

    Day In a Page

    Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

    Please save my husband

    As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada
    Birthplace of Arab Spring in turmoil as angry Tunisians stage massive sit-in over lack of development

    They shall not be moved: jobless protesters bring Tunisia to a halt

    A former North African boom town is wasting away while its unemployed citizens stick steadfastly to their sit-in
    David Hasselhoff's new show 'Hoff the Record': What's it like working with a superstar?

    Hanging with the Hoff

    Working with David Hasselhoff on his new TV series was an education for Ella Smith
    Can Dubai's Design District 'hipster village' attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?

    Hipsters of Arabia

    Can Dubai’s ‘creative village’ attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?
    The cult of Roger Federer: What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?

    The cult of Roger Federer

    What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?
    Kuala Lumpur's street food: Not a 'scene', more a way of life

    Malaysian munchies

    With new flights, the amazing street food of Kuala Lumpur just got more accessible
    10 best festival beauty

    Mud guards: 10 best festival beauty

    Whether you're off to the Isle of Wight, Glastonbury or a local music event, we've found the products to help you
    Unai Emery’s passion for winning and eye for a bargain keep Seville centre stage in Europe

    A Different League

    Unai Emery’s passion for winning and eye for a bargain keep Seville centre stage in Europe, says Pete Jenson
    Amir Khan and James DeGale’s remarkable Olympic performances were just the start of an extraordinary journey - Steve Bunce

    Steve Bunce on Boxing

    Amir Khan and James DeGale’s remarkable Olympic performances were just the start of an extraordinary journey
    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf