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The Penny Bun, Cep or Porcini – the cooks mushroom

Boletus Edulis is one of the best eating mushrooms available from the Wild. This mushroom even looks edible its perfect domed and brown cap looking like a Victorian bread bun that at the time cost a penny - hence the name ‘Penny Bun’. In France this beloved Mushroom is called the ‘Cep or Cepe’, whilst in Italy they call it the ‘Porcini or Porcino’ literally translating to ‘Little Pig’ again a clue that points to its gastronomic uses in leaner times.

A proud specimen of a Cep
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Aside from looking like a perfect baked bun this great tasting mushroom can be identified by its domed brown cap and short bulging stem that looks as if it is buckling under the weight of its giant cap. Underneath the cap, that can grow to be as much as 30cm, instead of gills are a system of small holes called pores. The pores are in effect tubes that run through the cap and eventually provide a route for the spores to leave the mushroom, the spongy pores are white in young mushrooms, turning yellow and then to olive in fully mature Ceps (spores are Olive brown in colour). The bulbous stem is white, browning as it gets closer to the cap, in young Porcini the cap hugs the stem closely only opening fully as the mushroom matures.

The Penny Bun or Cep can grow quite quickly, sometimes to maturity in a number of days, the same mycelium could fruit every three or four days (given the right weather conditions) for up to 5 weeks or until the first frosts so it pays to revisit your Cep spots regularly during their growing season. As the mushrooms develop, especially when the weather is quite warm, they are loved by more than the gourmet mushroom hunter and are prone to infestation by insects. It’s best to check the Cep in the field, so if you do have an infested or useless mushroom you can break it up and spread a few spores around for the following years crop.

To find the Cep or Porcini you need to look for their favourite companion tree’s. The type of tree that Cep prefer varies from place to place but can include Oak, Birch and Pine. Their season is August until October (or when the first frosts start) and they are reliant (as with all Wild Mushrooms) on a moist (post rain) environment.

If you are lucky enough to find a group of Ceps, sometimes they grown in groups of two to three, be careful not to damage the Mycelium when picking. The best way to do this is to twist the mushroom gently pulling until it breaks away. Cutting the mushroom can leave a small amount of fruiting body on the Mycelium to rot, sometimes damaging that part of this complex organism and preventing any future mushrooms growing in the same spot.

A bountiful haul of Porcini
So what’s all of the fuss about.. Well, as I have previously hinted at, this is one of the best eating mushrooms around. The Cep or Porcini (I prefer to call it by its Italian name when relating it directly to food) has a deep and earthy flavour somewhere between mild meatiness and a fragrant musty nut.

Check out my post on the Wild Foods of Sicily to learn more about Italian Wild Food (including another very special mushroom!!). 

The flesh is firm, especially in the younger mushrooms and is a rich source of Umami hence why mushroom hunters can become so addicted to these gourmet wild treats. They eat well on their own or paired with other flavours. I once saw Porcini in an Italian restaurant being simply prepared by studding a large cap with thin shards of Garlic, brushed with butter, seasoned and grilled. This simple dish was served with bread (and a glass of white wine) and was eaten with gusto by the Italian who had ordered it. Fresh Porcini are hard to beat and when you have them should be enjoyed this way. They pair well with Thyme and Lemon as well as Garlic and Parsley and can be prepared in a myriad of ways. Raw young Porcini can be shaved (or sliced really thinly) into salads. Sliced they can be used in Risotto or Pasta (Penny Bun and Courgette Pasta)  or they can be grilled whole. If you have a bumper crop you can literally use them as a replacement for normal mushrooms (in Italy they don’t eat farmed mushrooms, preferring to eat frozen Porcini that seem to be available in every supermarket). The mushrooms really do freeze well or they can be dried quickly with the use of a dehydrator or more slowly by slicing them and threading them onto lines where the can be hung above warm radiators until completely dehydrated (I like to take some Porcini and grind them into a powder, this powder can then be used as a seasoning).

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Whatever you want to call the Penny Bun, Cep or Porcini this mushroom has got to be rated as one of the finest Wild Foods available to the Forager, it’s great flavour enriching recipes across the world, the inability of UK shops to sell it one of the main reasons I took up foraging in the first place!

However you eat it, the Porcini simply a great mushroom and a joy to hunt for in the shortening days of Autumn!

Remember, not all Boletus are safe to eat. In fact some mushrooms are deadly so only eat mushrooms that have been positively identified as 100% safe to eat by an expert.