Environment: Chefs feel heat as mushrooms go on conservation menu

Click to follow
The Independent Online
A move by wildlife conservation groups to limit mushroom picking has met with squeals of outrage from London chefs who say fungi are vital to their cooking. Rosa Prince looks at the ingredients for an environmental row.

Conservation groups including the National Trust and English Nature say over-picking is harming rare mushrooms and the woodland animals who live off them.

But London restaurateurs deny the use of mushrooms such as penny buns, slipperyjacks, horns of plenty, and giant puff balls is damaging.

Antonio Carluccio owns the Neal Street Restaurant in Covent Garden which uses mushrooms in 30-40 per cent of its dishes. He said: "Mushroom picking has been going on all over the world for thousands of years.

"Up to 20 years ago English people associated mushrooms with black magic instead of something good to eat.

"It is only in the last few years that we have got into continental food and so into mushrooms.

"In other countries mushrooms are very much part of gourmet food and I don't see why we can't enjoy them here."

The chefs' call to keep one of their favourite ingredients on the menu comes as the National Trust joins with English Nature, the British Mycological Society, the Woodland Trust and the Forestry Commission to draw up a code of conduct for pickers.

They say restrictions are needed to stop commercial pickers who take large numbers of rare mushrooms for export abroad, and to curb over-zealous harvesting by individuals.

The problem is particularly bad in the New Forest, Hampshire, and in parts of Scotland where some forests are said to have been stripped of mushrooms.

The National Trust itself has received donations from the sale of wild mushroom soup made by the New Covent Garden Soup Company, and still appears on its packaging. Company spokeswoman Katie Kame said: "When we offered to donate money they were concerned about where the mushrooms came from. We import from China and Eastern Europe so it was all right and we went ahead."

John Harvey, head of nature conservation at the Trust, said: "The basis of our concern is reports of commercial collection by companies who either export the mushrooms or sell them to London restaurants.

"People are going out with rakes and raking up the mushrooms which kills animals and other plants. The parallel is with deep-sea fishing which has decimated some species of fish."

Restaurateurs, too, are keen to stress their commitment to conservation. Rose Grey, of the River Cafe in Hammersmith, west London, said: "When we buy for the restaurant we go to commercial pickers who go on organised mushroom picks in places where there are plenty.

The River Cafe uses fungi in its risottos, ravioli and omelettes. When larger mushrooms are available they roast them stuffed with pancetta and thyme.

Dr Brian Johnson, a botanical adviser to English Nature, said the restrictions would not limit mushroom enthusiasts who picked a few for their evening meal. He said: "We have no intention of stopping the collection of mushrooms altogether. But taking large quantities in a way that is doing harm must be stopped. The guidelines would limit the amount people collect and ban certain damaging methods."

Dr Johnson said the code would be voluntary but if it was ignored, conservation groups would seek legislation or the licensing of commercial pickers.

Britain a paradise

for fungi eaters

The British Isles are a haven for mushrooms - almost all varieties grown worldwide can be found here. The season runs from mid-late summer through autumn, although some varieties continue outside this time. Wild mushrooms favoured by top restaurants include:

The penny bun or cep (boletus edulis) is the most popular wild mushroom. It often grows near golf courses, sometimes beside the poisonous fly agaric (amanita muscaria). Penny buns should not be washed or peeled and are excellent in stews and sauces.

Chanterelle (cantharellus cibarius) are plentiful in Scotland. They are a deep yellow and are said to smell of apricots. Chanterelle are found in mossy woods and are often cooked with scrambled eggs.

The horn of plenty (craterellus cornucopioides) is an unusual blackish colour and tastes best with white fish such as halibut, sole or monkfish.

Giant puffballs (langermannia gigantea) can be big as a football - just one can feed a whole family. May be sliced and deep fried or grilled.

The wood blewit (lepista nuda) grows in abundance in Britain, but take care cooking it as it is poisonous when raw. They are in season well into the winter.

Morels (morchella elata and morchella esculenta) are very expensive and very rare. Must be distinguished from the false morel (gyromitra esculenta) which is poisonous.

Slippery Jack (sullus leteus) live under trees and have a slippery surface - hence the name. They are good in stews.