They tend to work alone, these explorers who wander silently in the early morning. Often they appear as only shadowy presences, dressed in black and making their way steadily, stealthily across the wet mountain crevices. The air is rife with competition, their favoured locations are passed down in whispers through the generations, and each is intent on securing their own precious bounty. Such is the life of a dedicated fungaioli (mushroom forager) when the season is in full swing.
These are people who take their mushrooms seriously, and we're not talking about the ubiquitous closed-cup or button variety. It is the whimsically named giant puffballs, parasols, cloud ears, penny buns and fairy rings that foragers spend hours searching for. Mushrooms are neither plant nor animal, but reproductive structures produced by fungi which thrive in warm, damp areas. So although a wet and stormy end to Europe's relatively hot summer proved unpopular with holidaymakers, it was embraced by mushroom aficionados, who have reported the appearance of record numbers and varieties of fungi.
Collecting basketfuls of delicate chanterelles, with their golden hue and faint apricot aroma, or stumbling upon a hoard of earthy, rich black trompettes certainly has its bucolic appeal. However, the length to which people will go to secure these elusive treasures is somewhat shocking. According to reports earler this month, so far this mushroom season in Italy alone at least 18 fungaioli have died. It is thought that many of these casualties were foragers who, striving to outwit their rivals or uncover new sources, attempted to scale hazardous mountain passes without suitable clothing or equipment.
There is something mystical, foreboding even, about foraging for wild mushrooms and later eating your fill. This is an age-old practice that has more than a hint of Russian roulette about it and the Croatian proverb that advises "you can eat all mushrooms, some only once" has often proved all too true. There are thousands of different types of mushrooms growing wild in the countryside all over Europe; the majority are harmless, although perhaps not particularly pleasant to eat, a prized few are edible delicacies and fewer still are poisonous, some deadly. Trickily though, many of the more toxic toadstools closely resemble their innocuous relations and eager hunters (particularly novices) continue to be duped. Despite being something of a seasoned forager, Nicholas Evans (the author of The Horse Whisperer) fell ill in 2008 after unwittingly eating the poisonous mushroom Cortinarius speciosissimus. After weeks spent in hospital following the incident, he now relies on dialysis to stay alive and is awaiting a kidney transplant.
In Europe, expedition days led by specialists in the fungi field have become increasingly popular among those who fancy a taste of rural self-sufficiency, without having to worry about the consequences. Such options don't avail themselves to us over here in the UAE, and although a handful of sliced button mushrooms make an adequate addition to a bolognese sauce, for dedicated fans there are times when only a silken shiitake or flavoursome morel will do.
If your desire is such and you're willing to pay a premium price, then Quintessentially Gourmand is a worldwide company (with a branch in Dubai) that sources luxury foodstuffs, wild mushrooms included. When the seasons allow, they deliver morels, chanterelles and ceps throughout Dubai and Abu Dhabi. For an average price of around Dh150 per kilo (although morels are an eye-watering Dh335) fresh wild mushrooms will arrive at your door within a week of ordering. Alternatively, frozen wild mushrooms can be delivered the next day, providing they are in stock.
After such a lavish spend, it's important that you treat your ingredients properly; most chefs advise against submerging mushrooms in water to clean them as they have a tendency to absorb liquid. Instead, a pastry brush or damp cloth is recommended as the ideal tool to remove bits of dirt and ensure that your finished dish doesn't taste gritty. Lee Kok Hua, the executive chef at Hakkasan, uses a variety of different mushrooms in his kitchen, his favourite being earthy shiitakes, enoki and peppery shimejis, all of which are sourced from China. The restaurant's signature mushroom dish is a "simple, flavourful and healthy" wild mushroom stir-fry with macadamia nuts. For this, Lee combines shimeji, shiitake, bai yu and monkey mushrooms with spring onions, carrots and macadamia nuts. He then cooks this mixture in a hot wok with a touch of chicken stock and some seasoning.
When it comes to cooking at home, if you've opted for a rare, and therefore expensive, variety, then the mushrooms should be handled carefully and are best served simply. It is, after all, their distinctive flavour that you pay for and this shouldn't be overpowered - a touch of butter and salt is often suffice. To give the mushrooms a nice golden brown colour, Paul Bussey, the executive chef at the Rivington Grill, recommends cooking briefly over a high heat in a little olive oil, before adding butter for flavour. The mushrooms should be in the pan just long enough for the moisture that they give off to evaporate, thus allowing them to roast rather than stew.
Quintessentially Gourmand offers delivery in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. See www.quintessentiallygourmand.ae
Serves 4 Ingredients for mushrooms on toast 200g mixed wild mushrooms (girolles, morels, ceps) 100g portabella mushrooms 100g button mushrooms 40ml olive oil 50g butter 60ml vegetable stock 40g parsley, chopped 4 slices bloomer bread, toasted Salt and pepper Ingredients for confit garlic 40g garlic 100-200ml olive oil 12g thyme, leaves picked Directions First prepare the confit garlic. Peel the individual cloves and place in a small saucepan. Season with salt and sprinkle over the picked thyme leaves. Pour over enough olive oil to cover and leave to cook over a very low heat until soft (1-2 hours). Drain and set aside until you are ready to use. Clean the wild mushrooms with a damp cloth to remove any dirt, then tear into pieces. Peel the portabella mushrooms and slice into pieces about the thickness of your finger. Cut the button mushrooms in half. Place a frying pan over a high heat, add the oil and tip the mushrooms into the pan. When the mushrooms take on a bit of colour, add the butter. Once the butter has melted add the confit garlic and vegetable stock. Season with salt and pepper and cook until the liquid has evaporated. Stir in the chopped parsley and taste to check the seasoning. Arrange the toast on four plates, top with the mushroom mixture and drizzle over any pan juices.