The king of wild mushrooms are the ceps (in French), porcini (in Italian) or Penny Bun (good old blighty). They can be found in the UK as early as July until the first frost and are one of the tastiest and satisfying of all foraged foods.
They normally start popping up after a good bit of rain, although this year the ground is still pretty dry. Nevertheless we have been keeping an eye on our favourite patch and suddenly they have started to appear in good numbers.
It may seem strange, but there is a huge amount of excitement and tension on a mushroom hunt. Will they be there, has someone else picked them, have the slugs got them (there are some MONSTER slugs out there this year) or even the squirrels? Judging by holes and teeth marks, we are definitely not the only ones mushroom hunting this year.
When we arrive at our spot, I tend to adopt the pose of a heron stalking an elusive fish. Each foot is placed carefully in front of the other, making sure not to step onto my potential dinner. My head swivels slowly from side to side, scanning the leaf litter while occasionally I stoop down to inspect.
Ceps have a round, brown cap and a thick white stem, but viewed from above amongst the fallen leaves, they can be extremely hard to spot. However, once you find one – you can get your eye in, and usually there will be others close by. To pick them, you grasp them by the stem and twist gently out of the ground. Then remove the soil at their base with a knife before popping them into your basket.
A fresh young cep is firm and compact, and on slicing, is white except for the spores. Unlike most mushrooms, ceps have a sponge underneath the cap, as opposed to gills. This is solid when young, but becomes softer and noticeably spongy as they age, turning green.
You can eat young ceps raw in salad, but the best way for me is fried in oil or butter with garlic and parsley; delicious on toast or in pasta with a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese. You can roast the caps, or make incredible sauces – and if you find a large quantity, it is best to dry the older ones.
This weekend we made a cep pizza – homemade dough, mozzarella, Parmesan, fried onions and the fried ceps – it was one of the most incredible tastes this year.