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).
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