September – Ceps

Boletus edulis

AKA Porcini (Italy & commonly UK too nowadays), Penny bun (UK traditionally, but generally cep from the French name Cepe is used), Steinpiltz (Germany), King bolete (US).

The cep is the king of edible mushrooms. No food, fungal or otherwise, comes near it for flavour and texture and when you find a firm young penny bun, or ‘bouchon’ cep as the French call it after champagne corks, there is an irresistable fairytale beauty to them which is both beautiful and seductive.

In prime condition, ceps are one of the few wild mushrooms that I recommend eating raw, though if you have never tried them before, you should start with only a tiny amount. Fortunately a morsel is all you need to intoxicate your senses. The texture manages to be both crisp and succulent, while the flavour is one of chestnuts, musky woodland, even a hint of smokiness, but overall, just very mushroomy! The combination of deep intensity and aromatic lightness is fantastic.

If you think all this sounds unlikely and exaggerated, you really should try one. And don’t take my word: witness the French and (especially) Italian love affair with this mushroom. In season, market stalls will be bursting at the seams with fresh specimens and most rural Italian towns have their own fungi festival each autumn where prizes are awarded for biggest/prettiest/most like finder porcini. Even in winter and spring no self respecting grocer will be without a huge box of dried porcini.

Ceps lend themselves extremely well to drying and also freeze well so they are available commercially in some form or other all year round and are a widely traded commodity on the continent. Although they lose their texture when dried, many argue that the process actually intensifies the flavour, and there is the added bonus of the water used for reconstituting them making excellent mushroom stock.

Dried porcini reconstituting

 

You may well be thinking that this is some rare, exotic species, but they are in fact, not hard to find in Scotland and much of the UK. They are a mycorrizal mushroom, meaning that their parent mycelium (the underground network of microscopic fibres that permeate topsoil) can happily unite in a mutually benificial relationships with tree roots. Ceps are what I think of as ‘loose’ mushrooms in so far as they can associate with a variety of tree species. Such infidelity means that you can regularly find them beneath beech, birch, pine and spruce trees from late August to November. They share the same preferences as fly agaric and peppery boletes, which are often clues to good hunting -grounds.

I often curse the monoculture created by huge swathes of sitka spruce plantations, but as mushrooms don’t need light to flourish, I must confess to gathering some tremendous hauls of ceps beneath their boughs. 1998 was the last year that we had unbroken hot weather right up to September when heavy rain broke the drought, resulting in a fungi invasion. I harvested nearly 200kg of prime bouchon cep from a 200 square metre area of south-facing sitka spruce plantation, and i only took the best 10% of what was there. We ate a lot of risotto that winter…

My ultimate wild mushroom risotto – made with dried ceps, fresh puffball and chanterelles

Inexperienced foragers can have trouble distinguishing ceps from other less desirable pored mushrooms or boletes. This is not the worst of failings as only the red pored and rare devil’s bolete is dangerously poisonous, though several can be bitter and indigestible. It doesn’t help that ceps are very fast growing and their appearance changes rapidly during the 10 – 20 days it takes them to emerge, mature and begin to rot.

Key identification features are the light to chestnut brown smooth cap with a white rim and often a hazy pale ‘bloom’. Ensure the stipe is pale with a slightly raised white net pattern (reticulum) on the top third. Pores and tubes start off pale grey, becoming yellow and eventually olive green in past-their-best specimens. Flesh should be unchangingly white throughout apart from a narrow claret-coloured line just under the skin of the cap.

If there is one downside to gathering ceps, it is that insects value them every bit as much as we do. I try to be philosophical about this, remembering that they are food, home and nursery to a great many beasties with fine taste, and an important part of the woodland ecosystem. But when 90-95% of outwardly perfect specimens turn out to be infested (often even before they have fully emerged from the ground), it is hard not to become dispirited.

Once you have been disappointed a few times, you will learn not to get your hopes up for any ceps whose pores have turned from grey-white to yellowy-olive. Softness in the stipe can generally save you (and the mushroom) the trouble of picking but in borderline cases I recommend picking and slicing the stipe from the bottom up until you no longer see burrows. Salvage from such ceps is normally best used for drying. You may occasionally come across mysterious piles of yellow goo around likely cep patches. These are the putrid carcasses of ceps degraded by bolete-eater fungus – just get there sooner next year!

Ceps, dried or fresh, will lift any mushroom dish to a new level. Even a small amount added to other mushrooms can make quite a difference. Here are some of my favourite recipes – but be sure to try them raw in the forest first!

Click for link.

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Cep with parmesan and wild herbs.

This is the most simple, elegant and utterly delicious starters/salads I know. It demands the very firmest, freshest bouchon ceps.

 

 

 

 

 

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Cep and bacon tart

 

 

 

 

 

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Ultimate mushroom risotto

 

 

 

 

 

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3 Responses to “September – Ceps”

  1. I find it hard to read this post without dribbing – never found a full, complete actual cep before, but I’ll be hunting high and low for them after reading this! It’s annoying that most commercial dried cep actually contain a variety of lesser mushrooms as well as porcini.

    • Dan, Ceps have a short life (only prime for 24 hours, if that) and a short season (3 weeks around the start of September in SW Scotland), so you have to be really tuned in and ready to pounce. Keep hunting, i’m sure you will find some – but maybe not this year now!
      Commercial dried cep should be clearly graded 1, 2 or 3. 1 being only prime specimens and 3 flubbery, infested ones. They shouldn’t contain inferior fungi, but there are some dodgy operators out there! I used to buy chinese truffles, but got tired of having nothing left when i’d scraped off all the soil that had been deliberately compacted into the wrinkles!
      Mark.

  2. I never new that fly agaric are a good indicator I see loads of fly agaric under silver birch and I mean hundreds i never even considered looking for the cep would this be the place to look there are no spruce forests where I live would it be possible for these kings of mushrooms to be growing where these fly agaric grow

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