The St George's Mushroom (Tricholoma gambosum) is so named because it traditionally appears on the English patron saint's day on 23 April, although in fact it normally does not force its way to the surface until about now, the first week in May. It is the first widely available edible mushroom of the new season.
Although edible mushrooms can be found almost all year round, early spring is comparatively barren, a time when frost-hardy species such as winter chanterelles die off. As a result, the delicious St George's are doubly valuable: "My early ones were going for pounds 25 a kilo," Clive Houlder says with a smile. "Normally I sell them for pounds 15 to restaurants. At Covent Garden they fetch pounds 8-pounds 10 - but that's still worthwhile when you can get several kilos from just one ring."
The St George's is a strong, meaty mushroom with solid, dense, creamy flesh and white gills. It has a powerful, mealy smell. These qualities explain its popularity among gastronomes, who appreciate the chunky texture and powerful flavour. Indeed, Clive Houlder says that some chefs find the flavour too strong, but other restaurants lap the mushrooms up. "It's got a lovely strong flavour, almost perfumed," he says, adding that the best are cut young (you should never pull up wild fungi because it can damage the underground mycelial threads). As the fungi age, the delicate perfume changes to a stronger, mealy taste which goes particularly well with chicken.
Although some guides claim they are usually found on chalky ground, St George's can grow on any soil. But they do prefer unfertilised old pasture because, like most mushrooms, they spring from a delicate subterranean network of mycelial threads. If undisturbed, the mycelium will continue to push up untidy rings of mushrooms for years, even centuries. When you pick a St George's, it could well come from the same threads that fed our medieval ancestors.
There is one poisonous species, Entoloma sinuatum, which could theoretically be mistaken for a St George's but, according to Clive Houlder, there is little danger of confusion for the amateur with a good illustrated guide: "There is only one chunky white mushroom with that distinctive, mealy smell around now," he says. "Although the experts talk about `kid glove texture' and so on, it's the smell that is the real giveaway - so strong that a basketful of these mushrooms has an almost overpowering perfume." In addition, unlike the rare and solitary E sinuatum, St George's tend to come up in profusion in large, untidy rings.
In spite of his unusually early first find, Clive Houlder is pessimistic about the coming year: "We desperately need rain, but our area of north Norfolk has been officially declared a semi-arid area," he says gloomily. "Let's just hope for a warm, wet summer."