It’s dark and damp and dank and all other kinds of autumnal ‘d’ words, and I’m lost. I’m on the search for ceps (Boletus Edulis), the king of wild mushrooms. I’ve been a keen forager for a couple of years now, and, like most foragers, I have a wish-list of things to find. The top of this list has always been the cep, or porcini mushroom. But I get ahead of myself (again). We have serious matters to discuss first.
Mushrooms are delicious, of that there is no doubt (no arguing at the back, there). They can be among the finest of flavours, complex and fruity and meaty and subtle and a big whack-to-the-head of umami, sometimes all in the same species. They can also kill you. I am always at pains to tell people, when they ask for advice or recommendations, that I am not an expert. What I am, though, is sensible.
So this is not an identification guide, it’s simply me gently encouraging you to get out there, in the wild and the wet, and be adventurous, and be safe. Get some books (more than one – I have eight that I regularly refer to). A good place to start is the River Cottage Mushroom Handbook by John Wright, and also Mushrooms by Roger Phillips; both are easy to use, accessible and entertaining. When identifying mushrooms, make sure the specimen you have agrees with the description and the photo. Take notes of where you found your prize (environment is key to identification). Take a spore print. It’s also great if your books agree with each other! If you don’t follow these steps, if you serve up something you have any doubt about, if you crash through the undergrowth stuffing fistfuls of mushrooms into your mouth, you will come to grief, and so will your loved ones.
Mushroom poisoning is horrendous, and in a lot of cases impossible to treat, and fatal. Do NOT eat anything if you are not 100% sure of its identity. Incidentally, this doesn’t just apply to mushrooms; it applies to any plant you may wish to forage as well.
So foraging, then, is an extreme sport. Extreme Dining. Like any extreme sport, take the proper precautions and it’s great. If you are still reading, and I haven’t put you off entirely, we’re going to talk about the joy of ceps (sorry).
Otherwise known as porcini or the penny bun, ceps are one of the most sought after wild mushrooms, commanding eye-watering prices both wholesale and on the menu. Varying from as big as, well, a penny bun (what do you mean, what’s a penny bun? How old are you?) to the size of my arm (which is quite big), they burst forth from the ground under pine, oak, beech and birch, preferring the edges of woodlands and more open situations rather than the dense undergrowth of a deep-in-the-woods Disney tangle. Until today I had never found one. I have walked the hills and dales of North Somerset in all seasons, in rain and shine, and found many a delicacy, but nary a cep to be seen. They are, apparently, fairly common, but you’ll need to work hard for them. Find your spot (remember it!). Don’t tell anyone. It’s worth the blisters.
So here I am, walking along the edge of a dark pine forest, feet soaked, beard collecting dew from the misty autumn air, a bit (entirely) lost (what time does it get dark these days?), and suddenly from the corner of my eye, there it is! A dark, shiny, domed cap, a cream coloured, swollen stem, a cep. Stop. Look around. Another, and another, and another; good grief, dinner! There are few things that are as exciting as finding something you’ve been searching for for so long. Car keys, true love, a purpose in life, a perfect cep.
I gently ease it from the ground using a twisting motion. This is better than digging or cutting the fruiting body from the ground (a mushroom is not an organism, but a reproductive organ), as this can damage the connection to the mycelium, the network of underground fibres that make up the majority of the life-form, leaving it open to infection. Be aware of maggots and slugs. There are several species of animal that live an entire life cycle in a single fruiting body, and they are not delicious – trust me. Most will be obvious and can be dislodged or dug out, some will be further in and will present themselves when you get back to the kitchen and start slicing.
Ceps lend themselves to all kinds of cooking. They dry really well – you can make a powder from dried ceps to season dishes that need a blast of savoury. They pickle well, one of the few mushrooms that does. They go really well in stews and soups, holding up to bold flavours. They go surprisingly well with red mullet. I have cooked often with dried ceps, but cooking fresh ceps that you have found yourself, for the first time, begs only one method (as do most foraged mushrooms, the first time you cook them) – fried in butter with garlic, onion, a little salt and pepper (add at the end, as the salt will encourage water to exude from the mushroom), and served on hot granary toast. Add bacon if you must (I must). Heaven. I hazard you do not need a recipe for this (although be aware that older/larger specimens will take a little more cooking to soften – around ten minutes on a medium-high heat).
Right, I’m off to dream up some festive treats for next time, so until then, ta-ta.
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