Most Britons are instinctively wary of fungi, treating all unfamiliar mushrooms as ‘toadstools’ and refusing to touch, let alone taste them. This is a great pity for some have simply superb eating qualities. The best way for the beginner to get started in this rewarding past time is to target a few of the best tasting and most recognisable species.
Take the penny bun which is most often known by its French, Catalan or Italian names of cepe, cep or porcini.
The books say it is usually associated with deciduous species such as oak, but is also found near conifers – particularly in the mossy banks along their lower edges. Its spongy gills, brown cap and thick beige and cream stalk make it easy to identify. Better still, it is extremely common from August to November in mature, damp, woods across Britain. In common with most woodland fungi, the fruiting season is dictated mainly by how the trees have reacted to the weather during the spring and summer. This year looks set to be a good if not a great year, thanks to the mild winter and early start to the growing season, followed by plenty of sun during early and mid-summer. One tip when looking for this, ‘the king’ of mushrooms is to look for ‘the queen’ – fly agaric (the classic white-spotted red toadstool beloved by gnome manufacturers).
This is the world’s most economically important wild mushroom and is the one most people are likely to have encountered in a ‘wild mushroom’ dish on a restaurant menu. It is delicious fresh, but even better when dried and reconstituted in boiling water to make a delicious stock (to dry, slice thinly, spread on a wire rack and hang over a wood-burning stove, radiator or place in the airing cupboard). This liquid has a rich, almost nutty, flavour which works brilliantly in casseroles, soups and risottos.