It must be said that while there are many wild foods that are edible, not all of them are worth bothering with. Some however, are just about the most delicious, scrumptious morsels you will ever get your hands on. The Cep (alias Porcini or Penny bun) is the very pinnacle of fine wild food.
It is difficult to truly describe the overwhelming pleasure that sweeps the soul on discovery of a perfect Cep. First, a glimpse of the round cap poking through tufts of grass looking like a freshly baked straight-out-of-the-oven crusty bread roll. Next the rush over to fondle underneath the cap to see if it is accompanied by the fat belly and off white pores that will indeed guarantee a wild find of the best kind. Food porn it most certainly is, if the Cep was in the adult entertainment business it would give Jenna Jameson a run for her money…
Of all the wild foods you could ever come across (save sorrel- gotta love a patch o’sorrel), finding a prized mushroom, be it a batch of hedgehogs, Giant puffballs, chicken of the woods or the cauliflower, Ceps have to be at the top of the list and their discovery is only rivaled by their taste. I have grown bored of taking frequently fruitless missions to look for morels and the elusive horn of plenty and have resigned myself to the fact that they will be found when they want to be found- chancing is the only way. One thing that would be worth saying is that if you find a spot that crops well; keep it to yourself in time-honored tradition. I get most of mushrooms from Ashdown Forest a vast expanse of beautiful British woodland…but I ain’t telling you where exactly!
Ceps are part of the Boletus family, their distinguishing feature is the mass of spongy pores they have instead of the standard mushroom gills. Now I am certainly no mycologist, but since having to brush up on my mushroom taxonomy sharpish last year when knowing what was safe and what was not so I could maximize my hedgerow harvest, I slightly fell in love with the humpety-dumpety appearance of the boletuses. There is a huge amount of differing opinions as to which bolete’s are worth eating from various books, after road testing a few choice members of the family- I hope I can clear this up once and for all! Oh…and please use this as a basic guide to build your learning- always consult AT LEAST four sources or until you are 100% sure of what you are about to eat.
The best thing about the boletus mushrooms, is undoubtedly the fact that it would be difficult to confuse them with anything that would make the belly fold and the liver collapse…having said that, there are two members of the boletus family you would want to avoid:
- 1. Devil’s boletus-Boletus Satanas, as the name suggests has a bright red body and a greyish/green/brown cap. Older specimens such as the on pictured, smell worse than Satan’s armpit- or, put simply a dead animal (not that I have had the pleasure of sniffing Beelzebub’s under arm…). Stay well clear as will cause vomiting and nausea. Worth noting: The red cracked bolete does look similar on the stem but has yellow pores that bruise blue/green- edible but mushy when cooked.
- 2. Bitter boletus- not poisonous as such but so bitter and minging that it will render anything you may have used it in completely inedible. With its pinkish pores and pale brown body and cap, should be fairly easy to avoid.
Now that the nasty’s dealt with we can move onto the eaters. The most common four members that I come across in my usual spots are: Ceps, Bay bolete, Orange birch bolete and Brown birch bolete. Notice I don’t use Latin names for them, for the simple reason that no one speaks Latin anymore and I certainly haven’t since my school days…superabilis? Good.
There is a reason this mushroom goes for £25 a kilo- its delicious nutty flavor and firm texture is sublime in virtually any dish. When it comes to a good cep or indeed any grand example of a wild mushroom I tend to enjoy it as it should be: gently fried in a little butter, garlic, thyme, salt & pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice, stacked on top of a slice of bread, ideally sourdough- but I make do.
In actual fact as I sit typing, I have next to me one of the largest ceps I have found to date in perfect nick, I cant help but pick it up to have a sniff of its delicate mushroomy scent and earthy aroma…once this is done it is going straight in the pan without delay.
When looking for ceps, keep an open mind, unlike their cousins they are fairly anti-social as mushrooms go, experience has taught me to look in mixed woodland with a good smattering of birch, especially alongside verges and pathways in tufty grass. Natural depressions and ditches have also proved fruitful. Yesterday I found a seam which had some absolute beasts of porcini- I was a week or too late to enjoy it though.
As I understand from my frequent forays and grubbing about, the key features of a cep are quite straightforward: the cap really does look like the top of a freshly baked bun- a dark brown centre which turns to light brown at the cap edges. The pores are a creamy white that gradually turns yellow as the mushroom gets older, but by far the easiest giveaway is the stem. A quick peek under the cap should reveal a rotund body of jollity…not dissimilar from a conical flask, the swollen white stem apex with a fine white network of raised veins. Ladies & Gentlemen, congratulations you have just discovered one of the finest mushrooms known to man. Well done.
The Bay Bolete.
It would be fair to say one could get a little snobbish if one becomes accustomed to finding and gorging on the mighty porcini, but be mindful of the bay bolete: a great mushroom found in larger numbers and extremely common (this little fella is fairly sociable and grows in groups), after a good downpour and warm temperatures at this time of year baskets can be filled. Good for frying but improves with taste once dried- that’s why it is worth picking plenty and curing for winter soups and stews.
Again found in the same habitat as ceps (under oak trees in open fields too) and very easy to identify: A deep brown chestnut cap (slightly sticky when wet), yellow pores that bruise blue/green and a stem that is a lighter brown than the cap and looks as if someone has been at it doing small dashes of brown with a small paintbrush. The good thing about this chap is that for some reason insects and maggots tend to steer well clear unlike the cep. Try to pick younger specimens, as they are best; don’t be tempted by the beasts they can become!
Orange birch bolete.
Not one to be ignored, very tasty but perhaps not the most appetizing in the ground or the pan…pick only young specimens.
It grows, funnily enough, in outcrops of birch, has a scarlet tinted orange cap and a white stem with black ‘scales’. Pores are cream/yellow/grey (most often light grey). It has a tendency to bruise black and even go dark in the pan, but don’t let this put you off as it is quite palatable…unlike what is up next.
Brown Birch bolete.
A very common culprit found in the same places as the other three. A light brown cap, cream pores like a cep and an off-white, long, thin stem. I have tried cooking them- sludgy and ‘orrible, don’t bother!
We are slap bang in the middle of a damn fine mushroom season, If ever there was a time to be out scouring the undergrowth for ‘shrooms, this is the time! If you haven’t already, get some good books for reference I would recommend the following:
The River Cottage mushroom handbook by John Wright. (Excellent guide- best of all the HFW handbooks- this lad knows his stools.)
The Edible Mushroom Handbook by Anna Del Conte and Thomas Laessoe. (Not bad, bit worried by the fact that they put a picture of a tawny grissette under death cap, but otherwise good!)
Anyhoo, as the start of autumn often inflicts me with S.A.D until it is in full swing, I am off to France next week to hang with the finance and scour their woods and found out that my tree house has shrunk somewhat, except clare and I haven't...bit cramped.