Peter Jordan's eyes light up when asked to talk on his favourite subject. This is a man who is obsessed with fungi: his house is decorated with wooden toadstools; his bookcases are a temple to mycology guides and his garage is devoted to drying machines crammed with the fruits of his forays. And it goes without saying that his kitchen shelves are crammed with jars of pickled, dried and bottled mushroom slivers.
Given this love, it is perhaps unsurprising that he now makes a living conveying his enthusiasm by conducting guided mushroom tours around the country. Mind you, he claims to get as much from the trips as his clients: "It's such fun watching people on their first foray - a treasure hunt in the woods," he enthuses. "Once someone finds their first mushroom they're hooked. Chanterelles are the worst: one glimpse of that yellow funnel and they're off. Sometimes you almost have to put a lead on them to hold them back."
Mr Jordan himself was introduced to mushrooms by his grandfather who farmed in Norfolk. Although his own career began with banking, he found that his boyhood interest was stimulated as he worked around the country: "People say our fungi aren't as good as on the Continent," he says. "But I was amazed by the number and quantity of mushrooms growing everywhere." He was just as startled, however, by the general level of ignorance: "Although it's getting better, most people won't look at a mushroom unless it's wrapped in plastic and comes from Sainsbury," he says.
This is in marked contrast to our neighbours across the Channel, who seem to value fungi in direct proportion to their distance from a supermarket shelf. Here even the proselytising Mr Jordan pauses for a moment, however: "Mind you, it is much better not to go as far as the French, who will eat anything unless they can prove it's poisonous," he says. "Over here, we enthusiasts are much more sensible and won't eat anything unless we can prove it's very edible."
And touring Britain proving the edibility of our native fungi is how he chooses to spend his time. Although forays vary according to the local terrain and weather conditions, a typical one begins with an illustrated talk on what to expect. The party - normally not more than a dozen strong - then scours a likely spot, breaking for a light packed lunch, and moves on later to search in a different location: "Because my forays are based around edible species, I also try to find a couple of poisonous varieties to give people an idea of what to look out for," says Mr Jordan.
The afternoon is concluded with an opportunity to cook and sample the day's bag.
Mr Jordan dismisses recent reports that collectors are damaging the New Forest, as almost certainly groundless (at least as far as fungi are concerned): "Provided you cut the stalks with a good knife and gather them in a woven basket, picking mushrooms actually helps the reproductive process by spreading the spores much further than they might otherwise go," he says. "Besides, disturbed areas are often the best places to look and many species actually encourage animals to eat them by being highly edible. In fact, in the case of truffles, which grow underground, if it weren't for squirrels, mice and wild boar their spores would never get anywhere."
Of course, you do not need Mr Jordan's expert help to get started. For would-be collectors he says there are four basic rules: "Get a good photographic guide; take a basket and knife; don't pick anything unless you can identify it; and preferably go on an organised foray. Forestry Enterprise and local wildlife trusts run guided tours in many areas," he says.
Mr Jordan suggests starting in local parks, forests and commons, but advises beginners to be careful with familiar-looking mushrooms, particularly those on the edge of woods: "It's reckoned 90 per cent of poisoning cases in this country are from yellow stainers, which look very similar to field mushrooms," he says. "Although only 50 per cent of people are susceptible to them it can be a very unpleasant - but not fatal - experience." Instead he recommends easily identified species such as shaggy ink caps. "If you want to find out the real excitement of wild mushrooms, it's hard to beat a fresh baby cep," he adds.
For further information: The Ultimate Mushroom Book by Peter Jordan and Steven Wheeler (Lorez Books, pounds 16.95), gives an introduction to recognising and cooking the edible species. Mushrooms and Other Fungi of Great Britain & Europe by Roger Phillips (MacMillan, pounds 13.99) is a more comprehensive guide. For details of forays, contact your local Forestry Enterprise, Wildlife Trust or Peter Jordan at Poppy Cottage, Station Road, Burnham Market, Norfolk PE31 8HA (01328 738841).