ST. LEU-LA-FORET, France — It was just after dawn on an October morning in the Montmorency Forest north of Paris. The stands of oak and chestnut trees were still shrouded in mist. Earthy, pungent vapors rose from the ferns and soft humus on the forest floor.
Suddenly a man in tie and business suit, his trouser legs rolled up to his knees, burst into the open from a narrow trail. Startled by a stranger on his dawn mission, he held up a wicker basket by way of explanation.
"If you don't get here early," he said, pointing to his harvest of several large mushrooms, each with thick stems and golden brown caps the size of hamburger buns, "they will all be gone. On the weekend this forest will be like the Champs Elysees."
The mushrooms in the man's basket were cepes . In England they are sometimes known as "penny buns" because of their distinctive toasted-bun-looking caps. Italians, the western world's most prodigious mushroom consumers, treasure them under the name porcini and eat them with practically every dish, including raw in salads. German mushroom hunters call them steinpilz , which means "stone mushroom."
Known universally by the Latin name boletus edulis , they are probably the most pursued, cooked and savored wild mushrooms on Earth. In late September and October the European woods are full of mushroom hunters collecting these and a dozen other edible wild mushroom varieties that pop up under the moist leaf cover in the early autumn months.
The annual fall mushroom quest is one of the last outdoor rites before winter envelops the Continent in its sepulchral gloom. Markets display trays of the bulky cepes ; egg-yolk colored chanterelles; gnarled, cream-colored "goat-foot" mushrooms; saffron milk caps, and the delicate, black, horn-shaped mushrooms the French call "trumpet of the dead" but which are delicious and not at all deadly.
Provincial hotels offer special mushroom-hunting weekends that include guided sorties into the woods with fungi specialists and meals featuring the mushrooms harvested by the guests. The grand chefs of France and Switzerland negotiate with mushroom brokers in the fungi-rich regions of Perigord and Auvergne for special deliveries of 27 varieties of wild mushrooms for their creations. Some chefs demand that their mushrooms come from a specific forest where they feel the soil and climate conspire to give the mushroom its best flavor.
Each year about this time, for example, Manuel Martinez, chef of the Tour d'Argent restaurant in Paris offers a fricassee of three types of fresh wild mushrooms-- cepes , girolles (chanterelles) and faux mousserons --served with pan-fried goose liver and ginger bread. Bofingers, a brasserie for the after-theater crowd, serves minced pheasant with goat-foot mushrooms, pleurotes (oyster fungus) and "trumpets of the dead."
It is the time of year when pharmacists in France and other Western European countries put up posters in their windows displaying edible and poisonous mushrooms. French pharmacists are required by law to know how to identify all the main varieties of edible and poisonous mushrooms, such as the deadly greenish-yellow capped amanite phalloide or "death cap."
Despite national campaigns warning citizens about the dangers of mushroom poisoning, inevitably dozens of people die each year from consuming such deadly varieties as the death cap or "destroying angels" ( amanita virosa) . Other mushrooms cause severe diarrhea, vomiting and hallucinations.
One mushroom is not poisonous but simply embarrassing: It causes its consumer's face to turn beet-red if he or she has consumed alcohol two days before or after eating the mushroom.
Pollution and environmental disasters such as the Soviet Unions' 1986 radiation leak in Chernobyl have added to the mushroom dangers. In Germany, the National Nutrition Information Center in Bonn recently discontinued publication of a wild mushroom guide because of the increasing dangers of mushroom gathering.
In addition to accumulation of radiation from Chernobyl and heavy metals from cars and industry in the highly absorbent mushrooms, nutrition center spokesman Ruediger Lobitz said the mushroom hunters themselves cause a threat to the environment by tromping through the woods destroying every fungus in sight. "They even destroy the poisonous varieties," Lobitz complained. Publishing a mushroom guide, he explained, simply encourages more people to go into the woods.
But despite dangers old and new, mushroom appreciation societies in France, Germany and Britain report more people than ever in the European woods looking for some of the several hundred edible mushrooms. On a recent guided foray into the woods of the Haute Loire region of Auvergne, a group of American tourists in two days collected 108 varieties of fungi.