Treasure of the birch forest

This autumn, conditions are particularly good for mushrooms. Daniel Butler offers a guide to finding the tasty cep, or 'porcino'. Photograph: John Miller/GPL

Britain's woods at this time of year are full of gold. Across the country wild fungi, worth pounds 15 a kilo wholesale and up to pounds 40 retail, are thrusting their way through pasture and leaf mould. Given this largesse, there for the taking, one might expect a miniature repeat of the Klondike. Certainly that is the situation across the Channel, where every weekend the woods are alive with townsfolk collecting fungi of every conceivable shape, size and colour, both for their own use and for sale.

Things are different here, however. It seems that the British have an innate distrust of wild fungi. Most of us believe the only good mushroom is one which sits safely on the supermarket shelf, neatly wrapped in cling film and blue plastic.

This is pity, because Britain's mild. wet climate is ideally suited to many of the most delicious species of edible fungi, and this autumn conditions are particularly good. September, for example, saw a record crop of ceps (I picked well over 50 kilos in four one-hour forays). This was just the "first flush", and the October rains should trigger another burst of activity.

To take up mushrooming, essentially all you need is a good field guide. Novices, though, almost always make the mistake of collecting far too much. The result is that when they try to identify the two dozen species in their basket, the process takes hours, with the majority of the haul remaining in the "not sure" pile. Of those identified with absolute certainty, the chances are that none will be edible.

A far more sensible introduction is to search for just one particularly edible type. At this time of year this might be chanterelles (on gently sloping mossy banks beneath oak, chestnut or beech), parasols (in rough unimproved pasture) or, best of all, ceps (along damp woodland edges and hedgerows).

The last, Boletus edulis - sometimes known by its Italian name of porcino - is the perfect beginner's mushroom. Not only is it one of the best-tasting species of wild fungi, but it is relatively common and completely unmistakable, and when the ceps begin to "flush", the crop from a small area can be phenomenal.

Although ceps vary tremendously in size (from a couple of inches to more than a foot in height), even beginners should have no trouble with identification. Most obviously, they have spongy gills totally unlike those of any shop- bought button mushroom, which are white at first before gradually turning yellow. As for shape, they have a bulbous cap sitting on top of a thick, smooth stalk which is pale and streaked faintly with fawn (avoid any hint of red). Meanwhile, the colour of the cap can vary from a pale cafe-au- lait to a dark chocolate. There is only one mushroom, the brown birch bolete, which can seriously be confused with a cep, and this is also edible (if not so good).

The mushroom is normally found along woodland edges and hedgerows. According to the guides, it prefers deciduous trees, but my best spots are all on mossy banks below Norway spruce plantations. Disused railway lines are another excellent place to begin looking - as are golf courses.

"There's a bit of a knack finding them at first," says Clive Houlder, Britain's only full-time wild mushroom gatherer and dealer. "But once you've spotted your first, you're away - it doesn't take long to tune your eyes in."

Those who don't yet have the knack, however, might take comfort from a fungi course. Many wildlife trusts run autumn forays - two- or three- hour walks with a local mycologist who will point out interesting species and give lessons in identification. For more information, contact your local wildlife trust or the national headquarters in Lincoln on 01522 544400.

Such forays rarely focus on edible species, however, and many conservation bodies frown on widespread harvesting - particularly on nature reserves. More can be learned on one of the growing number of residential courses around the country, usually based around the skills of one expert. One of the most experienced of these is Dr Patrick Harding, a mycologist at Sheffield University who runs weekend courses.

Typically, these start on a Friday evening with a slide show and lecture. Next morning there is a talk on collection techniques, then a three-hour foray. After lunch, the results of the hunt are laid out in family groups, followed by a talk on edible species. On the Sunday he concludes with a talk on the folklore associations. For details, send an sae to Dr Harding at 36 Marshall Road, Sheffield S8 OGN.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
News
people
News
Elton John and David Furnish exchange marriage vows
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
Arts and Entertainment
The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit director Peter Jackson with his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
film
News
people
News
Billie Whitelaw was best known for her close collaboration with playwright Samuel Beckett, here performing in a Beckett Trilogy at The Riverside Studios, Hammersmith
people'Omen' star was best known for stage work with Samuel Beckett
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Wright has won The Apprentice 2014
tvThe Apprentice 2014 final
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £35K - £45K: SThree: SThree Group have been we...

Opilio Recruitment: Product Owner

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We are currently recruit...

Opilio Recruitment: Product Development Manager

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We are currently recruit...

Recruitment Genius: Qualified Nursery Practitioner - Sevenoaks

£15000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently have an opportunit...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'