To most chefs, hunting for the best ingredients means searching for the best supplier. But for some, when it comes to sourcing one particular ingredient at this time of year, hunting means something more primeval. We are talking mushroom gathering.
There is no better or more popular place to bump into a chef who has swapped his clogs and toque for green wellies and a basket than the New Forest in Hampshire, where the abundance of wild mushrooms at this time of year is second to none.
Mike Womersley, chef and owner of the Three Lions at Fordingbridge, Hampshire, and a passionate mushroom hunter, thinks he knows why. "It's not just about cutting food costs for an expensive ingredient or getting mushrooms you can't buy. It's as if you are cooking with ingredients you have produced yourself. There's an extra pride in doing that. You are finding the stuff in its very raw environment and the quality is unrivalled." Among the dishes on the Three Lions menu that feature fungi are a cèpes, bacon and egg salad and a lasagne done with sliced giant puffball.
Another New Forest fungi-hunting chef is Alex Aitken, chef and owner of the Michelin-starred Le Poussin at Parkhill, whose restaurant is on the doorstep of the Forest. "At this time of year, I'm in the Forest as often as I can. It's not something to do on the day off, but something that fits between services. It almost becomes a way of life. It's recreation, exercise and I suppose, a bit of profit-margin assistance."
Among the signature fungi-flavoured dishes at Le Poussin are fillet of turbot with crisp-fried oyster fungi and pot roast New Forest pork with a cèpe boullion. Aiken even has a mushroom dessert, chanterelle crème brûlée, made by sautéing yellow chanterelles in butter, flaming them with the Italian liqueur Strega, putting them in the base of a ramekin, adding a topping of rosemary-flavoured custard and finishing off in the normal crème brûlée manner.
Womersley and Aitken are chefs who love to forage for woodland mushrooms as much as they love to cook with them. Others pick their own only occasionally. Philip Storey, chef and owner of the Old Chesil Rectory at Winchester, does put New Forest mushrooms on his menu, but he mostly buys them from specialist local suppliers. "I have been out gathering my own at this time of year because there are lots - and they are familiar varieties like chanterelles and cèpes - but when it gets into winter and spring there are mushrooms that you don't recognise. It's a confidence thing. You have to be certain what you are putting out in the restaurant."
Canadian-born Ian McLelland, head chef at Stanwell House in Lymington, is an "incomer" to the New Forest, arriving just a year ago and only just getting into the Hampshire fungi culture. He admits to being amazed at the range of fungi he saw in the woods on his first serious hunt. "These guys [Womersley and Aitken] seem to know every tree stump, but it isn't as difficult as I thought it would be. Back home in Canada, no chef would ever dream of doing something like this."
For the less-than-expert fungi-hunter, an identification book is essential. The Mushroom Book by Thomas Laessoe (Dorling Kindersley, ISBN 0 7513 0258 9, £19.99) gives a well-illustrated guide to hundreds of British mushrooms. Mushrooms and Truffles by Antonio Carluccio (Quadrille, ISBN 1 899988 91 2, £6.99) has lots of Italian-inspired mushroom recipes and some basic identification information.