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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.