At this time of year, the earth’s floor has a bounty of delights, if you know where to look. If you don’t, visit a farmers’ market to get your mitts on a host of wild mushrooms, says Tom Norrington - Davies.
Honestly, I know a family that almost went to war with each other over wild mushrooms. The culprit was the much prized, edible Boletus mushroom, more appetisingly known as cep by the French, or porcini by the Italians. In our recent fervour for all things Italian, the porcini mushroom has become deeply trendy. It is very expensive to buy, but obviously free to those who know where to look. And this particular family – actually a pair of brothers – fell out over the fact that one knew where to forage, while the other didn’t. This was made worse as the brother who knew refused to let the other in on his secret. Wild mushroom-hunting enthusiasts would doubtlessly side with the secretive brother.
On the Continent, fungi foraging is widely practised. In parts of Italy, it is so popular that it is strictly controlled by local authorities, who will fine amateurs and professionals alike if they pick too many. This protects the environment, but also means that enthusiastic amateurs are less likely to poison themselves with toadstools (it is rare, but not unheard of). In France, where wild mushroom hunting is equally popular, it is possible to have your find identified in a pharmacy to ensure that it is safe to eat.
In Britain, those in the know are generally cagey about sharing their fungi knowledge. Vast patches of forest (the best places to look) are few and far between. There are also fewer varieties of mushrooms growing in Britain, although there are easily a hundred types for eating. However, you should be very careful if you go mushroom hunting: never do it without an expert or, at the very least, an illustrated guide.
Happily, once the season (late summer to autumn) kicks off, there are plenty of places to buy wild mushrooms. At some farmers’ markets these come in individual varieties. At certain times, this is the best way to buy wild mushrooms. You can mix and match the colours and textures. Many of them have amazing, descriptive names, too. I particularly love the spooky trompette des morts (trumpets of death!), or the slightly less poetic pied de mouton (sheep’s foot!), which looks – with a little help from your imagination – like its namesake. Morels and ceps are delicacies worth singling out but sometimes punnets of mixed wild mushrooms are a more affordable way of shopping for them.
It is not a good idea to wash wild mushrooms with water as this damages their texture. It is far better – if a little time consuming – to brush them clean (I use a pastry brush). I love it when I find pine needles nestling among my mushrooms. It makes me feel like a hunter-gatherer. It is also worth eating and buying wild mushrooms on the same day. After all, you’ve forked out for them, so the last thing you want to do is watch them wilt in a fridge!
Just as wild game tastes stronger than cultivated meat, wild mushrooms are not everyone’s cup of tea. So, all these recipes can be made using field mushrooms.