Is it worth it?: Let them stew in their own juice

Carluccio's fresh chanterelle mushrooms go wild in the country for pounds 24 a kilogram

WE ALL know a mushroom bore. Since wild mushrooms became necessary to dinner-party life, mycophiles have come into their own, and there always seems to be one on hand to bend your ear about the joys of an early-morning trip to the New Forest to snuffle out some muddy and probably poisonous specimen.

But let's face it, few people want to turn human bloodhound and start mushroom hunting, redolent of achingly dull school nature walks as such expeditions are. In which case, you might well turn your attention to Carluccio's in London's Covent Garden, "specialists in Italian food and funghi".

At pounds 24 a kilogram for chanterelles (pictured), these little babies are luxury items. (Compare fillet steak, about pounds 17 a kilo, and ordinary farmed mushrooms, about pounds 6 a kilo). But there is, I'm afraid, no escape from the wild mushroom. Could you really give your friends the cute-looking but essentially flavourless cultivated button? Only if it was buried in arch Seventies coq au vin.

When Carluccio first started selling fresh funghi, they were picked by the big man himself from the woods around London. Now some are gathered by Carluccio's baker from "a secret destination within 50 miles of London". ("To get the right ones, you have to know the mushrooms like your mother and father and children," he adds, all folklorique Italian charm.) That means the funghi can be in the shop first thing the next day. Sometimes they are imported from Scotland, Africa and even the West Coast of America, in which case they are flown in overnight.

Freshness is crucial, for as the food writer Leslie Forbes explains, "As soon as you pick a mushroom it starts to devalue. Truffles, for example, flood flavour, which is why you store them in rice so that at least it doesn't just disappear into the atmosphere. Chanterelles have a very, very subtle and delicate flavour. If you're going to spend that amount of money, the way to eat them is either on their own, like the Italians do, or with some plain buttered pasta."

Precisely because they are not cultivated, it is impossible to predict the quality of any given wild mushroom. "They are extremely volatile and fragile," explains Forbes. "There's no guarantee that every one will taste the same." So, you may find yourself paying pounds 24 a kilo for something which tastes of nothing, although the placebo effect will probably guarantee that at the sight of those golden frills, your friends will start to exclaim about apricot flavour and quote Grigson on the "incomparable chanterelle".

I turned to foodie Jonathan Meades, who can be relied upon to know his own mind. "Chanterelle are a fungal con," he declared. "They have no flavour and are vastly overrated. They've just been talked up by Carluccio. What you really want is a cep..." Setting mycomania aside, I conferred with a neutral observer. "Lump fish roe is one hundredth of the price of caviar, but is caviar really 100 times as good?" he mused. "Probably not. People pay a lot for quite marginal differences. On the other hand, chanterelles are deeply fashionable."

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