Ceps (Boletus edulis) – also known as porcini or penny buns – are among the very best wild mushrooms to be found. They are a bolete, which is a family of fungi that have spongy pores on the underside of the cap rather than gills. They have a matt-brown, domed cap, a stipe (stalk) that is creamy white and often bulbous, with a whiteish net-like pattern covering the upper part. There are many similar edible boletes, though the cep is the most sought after.
You can find these mushrooms from midsummer through to late autumn (indeed, November is the best month for them where I live). They are mycorrhizal, meaning they have a symbiotic relationship with the roots of the trees they grow under, exchanging nutrients that would otherwise be unavailable to both parties. This network of mycelium even acts as a sort of ‘internet’, allowing plants to communicate.
Look for ceps under both conifer and deciduous; I find that open, mossy ground under pine trees is often a successful place to start (with the added bonus that the fungi are easy to spot against the green of the moss).
Caveat – the kingdom of fungi is full of delicious edible treats, but also of deadly toxic species. Mushroom poisoning is serious, horrible, and can be fatal. Fungi are notoriously difficult to identify with certainty (habitat, smell, colour-change, even the appearance of their microscopic spores are all key, not just looks). Any mistake might be your last. This is not an identification guide, being in no way detailed enough. I recommend finding an expert in your area and going out with them on an organised foray. Get some books, lots of them, and never, ever, eat anything you are not 100% certain you have identified correctly, and don’t fill a basket with fungi if you don’t know what they are. It is, however, well worth the work and the care; some of the best flavours to be found in the wild come from fungi. It is a worthwhile way to spend a day; good for the belly, good for the soul.
In November last year, the forest near me was a carpet of ceps and other boletes, and I filled my basket several days in a row, heading deep into the woods to avoid the groups of other locals who gather every year to pick mushrooms for the table. Foraging has never gone away here in France, as it did in the UK, and consequently it is not trendy, nor a ‘fad’, it is simply part of life. It is gratifying to see, though the added competition means I need to work harder for my prize.
Fresh ceps can be eaten raw (this is not true of most mushrooms), or sliced and fried in butter and garlic; lovely, slippery, served on toast with a rasher of crisped bacon. The flavour is nutty, slightly acidic, and savoury. A mushroom risotto can be transformed into something truly special by the addition of a few ceps. They can also be pickled. My favourite way to deal with a good harvest is to dry them. This concentrates the flavour and renders them safe for long-term storage. The flavour of dried ceps and other boletes is altogether different to the fresh mushrooms. Deep and dusky, it speaks of forests and earth, of leaf litter and moss. To me, it is one of those special ingredients, along with things like butter or vinegar, that can transform a dish from the mundane to the magnificent.
To dry your mushrooms, brush and wipe them clean, and then cut into slices about 1cm thick. If you have any older specimens in your haul, check for maggots. I also find that older examples of some boletes, such as the bay bolete, need to have their pores removed, as they can be slimy; simply peel them away and compost them. Place the sliced mushrooms on wire racks, so the air may circulate around them, and put them in the oven on its lowest setting, with the door cracked open, for a few hours until they are completely dried out. Alternatively they can be dried above a radiator, in front of a fire, or in a dehydrator. The dried fungi can then be safely stored in air-tight containers for a year or so (do discard them if they develop any mould).
You can, of course, buy dried ceps from a delicatessen or grocer, but I do encourage you to get out in the wilds and find your own.
Chicken with Ceps.
Ingredients (serves 4).
4 free range chicken legs
12 or so small potatoes, cooked
4 small handfuls green beans, cooked al dente
a few sprigs of parsley
For the sauce
15g dried ceps/mixed boletes
1 rasher free range streaky bacon, diced
2 shallots, finely diced
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
4 sprigs fresh thyme, stalks removed
20ml double cream
splash of brandy
1 tbsp lemon juice
Soak the dried mushrooms in hot water for half an hour to rehydrate. Remove from the water and then strain the liquid to remove any grit. Set the mushrooms and the mushroom stock aside. Slowly cook the bacon, on a low heat, in a non-stick frying pan until just starting to colour. Add a good knob of butter, the shallots, and the garlic, and cook until soft and golden. Turn up the heat to medium, and add the brandy. Add the ceps, thyme, a couple of tablespoons of the reserved mushroom liquid, and the cream, and simmer very gently for ten minutes. Remove from the heat and add the lemon juice. Taste, adjusting the seasoning, and set aside.
Preheat the oven to a medium-high heat.
Remove the bones from the chicken legs (or buy already boned chicken). These can be reserved to add to a stock. Season the chicken with a little salt and then place, skin side down, in a hot non-stick frying pan that has a little oil or butter already sizzling. Cook for five or so minutes, until the skin is crispy and golden. Flip the meat over and put in the oven (either in the frying pan if it is oven-safe, or on an oven tray), and cook for 20 minutes until cooked all the way through. Transfer the chicken to a plate rest somewhere warm for a few minutes.
Meanwhile, pop a little more butter in the frying pan you cooked the chicken in, and add the cooked new potatoes (squash them a little) and green beans. Push them around for a couple of minutes to warm through and soak up some cooking juices.
To serve, heat the sauce very gently (don’t boil it, it will split), then pile the potatoes and green beans onto warm plates. Ladle some sauce around the edges. Cut the chicken into a few pieces and place on top of the vegetables. Serve.
This article first appeared in a different form on Locavore Magazine’s website