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"I love the fact that you can find wild food anywhere – in fields, in parks, by the sea, even on the edge of motorways." "You have to know the exact spot, under this bush or that tree – and it's almost a psychological game you play with them, because they keep themselves hidden," grins Rosalinda, another Italian mushroom picker."I can't describe the excitement when you do finally see one – that dark colour, the smell." But mushrooming isn't just the reverential, solitary communing with nature that Gennaro, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Antonio Carluccio and their ilk would have us believe.

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Epping Forest Senior Keeper Jonathan Preston said: "The removal of fungi can have a detrimental effect on the ecology of the Forest.

It is dangerous for the public to pick mushrooms from the wild as poisonous mushrooms can be commonly confused with edible ones.

And, in the leafy lanes, you may come across a clot of beery, larger-than-life bikers in black leather having a dirty laugh and revving their engines.

But nothing puts off the truly dedicated hunter-gatherers.

You'll find them, before dawn, heading east on the Central Line to Epping Forest, one of London's last great wildernesses, poking around for their hidden prey in the ferns that grow at the edge of tree-canopies and under the warm blanket of falling leaves and acorns, with their flat wicker baskets covered in dishcloths and their forked sticks to ward off snakes.