THE death cap, the sickener, the destroying angel, the panther, Satan's bolete; with names like that, it's no wonder the British call mushrooms toadstools and think of them more as perches for garden gnomes than as the aristocrats of nature's larder.
Unlike plants, which draw their energy from the sun's rays, most fungi live almost entirely underground, feeding on decaying or dead organic matter. When they emerge, in the form of mushrooms, they come in such weird shapes and lurid colours that you want to kick them, not pick them. But even when gastronomic curiosity overcomes fear, it can be disconcerting to discover that the most highly prized and delicious ones (the morel, the cep and the chanterelle, for example) have poisonous lookalikes. All things considered, you could be forgiven for restricting your choice to the packaged varieties in your local supermarket.
But despite all the risks, our fascination with fungi has been growing over the last ten years. Thanks to TV evangelists such as Antonio Carluccio and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, we have become more accustomed to exotic mushrooms cropping up on restaurant menus and deli shelves. Indeed, interest is so high that the Glasgow-based company Caledonian Wild Foods, which began by exporting its hand-picked Highland crop to the markets of Paris and Milan 20 years ago, now imports them back to meet demand, developing a multi-million-pound turnover in the process.
Not surprisingly, like all rare, beautiful and delicious things, wild mushrooms are expensive. When they first appear, in early June, a kilo of chanterelles sells for upwards of 30. It's a galling thought when, with a little research, you could find great carpets of golden chanterelles just begging to be picked for free - the culinary equivalent of stumbling across a pirate's hoard.
But therein lies the problem - finding the right place. Mushrooms are very sensitive to temperature and humidity. They also tend to have relationships with certain kinds of trees and specific types of soil. This sort of knowledge is 'in the blood' if you're French or Italian and have been taken into the mountains since infancy, but for the rest of us, it has to be earned and learned. Books alone are not the answer; to get it right, you need a guide. And, reader, I have found you one.
There can be no more luxurious way to learn about 'vegetarian stalking' than to visit Airds Hotel. An old coaching inn nestling on the shores of Loch Linnhe, Airds is a gastronomic haven - not to mention one of the best small luxury hotels in the country. This autumn, it is introducing its first mushroom-picking weekend, when a handful of lucky guests can witness the fruits of their day's foraging transformed into a gourmet dinner.
Paul Burns is the chef at Airds, and in the few hours when he's not whipping up Michelin-quality grub, he's out on the hills and in the woods finding ingredients. His passion for cooking is surpassed only by his love of the quiet hunt, as the Italians call it. "My friends call me 'the wood tink'," he laughs, but his lifelong interest in forests and plants allowed him to see the hotel's potential as a paradise for lovers of wild food.
Blueberries and brambles grow virtually on the hotel's doorstep; wild salmon jump in the loch, wild garlic and leeks are everywhere in the spring, and through the summer and autumn seasons the stars of the fungal world queue up to make their appearance. "Nature is so generous," he says. "It's all just out there to be found."
Mushroom-pickers are generally tight-lipped about where they find their treasures, so it is a pleasant surprise not to be blindfolded and shoved in the boot of a car before being taken to our hunting ground. En route, Burns pulls over beside a small birch wood. I assume that we'll be going in, but instead he crosses towards the sea loch, and there below the road, poking out of an old dry-stone wall, is a cluster of chanterelles. How did they get there? How did he find them? Burns reckons that the deer bring the spores on their hooves when they come down to low ground to feed at night. Driving home after work one day, he caught a flash of yellow and got out to investigate. Odd behaviour perhaps, but entirely normal for anyone in the grip of fungi fever.
Burns first learned the value of mushrooms as an apprentice chef in his native Perthshire. Initially, he saw them mainly as a way of augmenting his slender wage packet, but soon he became obsessed. "The Kinnoull wood is packed with mushrooms, particularly ceps, but I spent two years walking right past them and coming out empty-handed," he says ruefully. "Then a friend took pity and showed me where to look and how to read the clues. After that, I started seeing them everywhere, and that was it - I was hooked."
We are walking up a woodland path and pause to look at a group of fly agarics; the red-and-white spotted ones popular with fishing gnomes in the gardens of suburbia. "We could well have found a cep here," he says, "because they often grow together. But it has been too cold. Still, it's worth remembering." Another X goes down on the Ordnance Survey map...
The woodland floor is dappled with sunlight, which makes it difficult to tell what is a mushroom and what is just a dead leaf. Mushrooms are masters of camouflage: time and again we walk over them and are called back to see what we've missed. A good trick, Paul says, is to climb to higher ground and look downhill. We do this more than once, but although we can now see mushrooms in all colours and sizes, none is edible. After an hour or so, my fantasy of giving up the day job for a life as a mushroom-hunter starts to fade.
We wander through the moss-covered trees until, suddenly, in a dark clump of old pine tree stumps, we see a group of resting fairies - which turn out to be pleurotellus porrigens, a kind of ivory-white oyster mushroom Paul calls angel wings, found only in the Scottish Highlands.
Buoyed by our success, we spread out, pushing through bracken and crawling under branches until we're thoroughly lost. Then, in front of me, there they are, spreading over a carpet of bright green moss like an orchestra of tiny golden trumpets - a cluster of apricot-scented chanterelles. It is a bit like finding money in the street, only better, and we fill our baskets with them.
It's something all food lovers should try. Why not find out for yourself? Good hunting.
The Airds Hotel is run by Shaun and Jenny McKivragan at Port Appin, Argyll (01631 730236, www.airds-hotel.com)
Raise a glass for charity
GET your tickets now for the food and drink event of the season. Award-winning food writer and author Sue Lawrence and wine columnist Will Lyons are joining forces to present a charity masterclass next month in aid of Maggie's Centres and Marie Curie.
The Auld Alliance is the main theme for the event - Sue will present dishes using the best Scottish produce with a Gallic twist, while Will selects some of the best French and New World wines for you to sample. Champagne will be served on arrival, and a raffle will be held to raise cash for the charities - prizes include stays at some of the best Scottish hotels, beauty treatments, various culinary delights and lots of other goodies.
The event will be held at the Scotsman offices at 6.30pm on Wednesday, October 5. Admission is by ticket only, with a minimum donation of 20 per ticket. Please feel free to donate more. To book, send an SAE and a cheque for at least 20 per ticket to: The Scotsman Charity Masterclass, Customer Service Unit, The Scotsman, 108 Holyrood Road, Edinburgh, EH8 8AS. Call 0131 620 8400 for further information.