The Magic of Mushrooms

We’ve had meagre pickings of wild mushrooms in recent years around here – thanks to last summer’s intense heat there was very little activity on the funghi front and I was afraid that this year would be a repeat performance. But recent tropical rains following on the heels of canicular heat have done the trick and at last our wild mushrooms are on the move again. Excitement is reaching fever pitch and the word has gone out around the village that it’s worth getting out into the woods with a basket – only the vaguest hints, of course, and never a mention of where they can be found. Never mind, I have my favourite places (and I’m not telling either). There’s nothing quite like that first glimpse of a clutch of ceps peeping out through the leaf mould on the forest floor, or a line of field mushrooms, some of them the size of small plates, white caps visible from afar and pink gills hidden beneath. 

When you first pick a cep, you’re in no doubt that here’s a serious mushroom. Heft it in your hand: it’s unbelievably heavy and dense. Little wonder its German name is Steinpilz, stone mushroom. These are the best of all wild mushrooms. They’re wonderfully soft and pleasing to the touch – run your finger over the cap and it feels like a piece of soft chammy leather. The stems balloon out in a pear-like, almost obese form and these are just as good to eat as the caps. The caps can vary in colour from beige to deep chestnut – possibly the best of the bunch are the ones with the dark chestnut-coloured caps – this year was the first time I’ve found them in our woods and they called for a celebration – and a fun recipe, which follows.

I always feel a bit sorry for the beautiful, vivid apricot-yellow chanterelles or girolles, mainly because they’re so visible, even from afar. Other wood mushrooms enjoy an excellent camouflage – the brown cap of the cep makes it near indistinguishable from the leaf mould through which it thrusts its head; horns of plenty (called, somewhat offputtingly, trompettes de la mort in French) closely resemble the odd piece of rotting twig; and truffles wisely stay below ground and you need a pig or a specially trained dog to help you find them. But chanterelles leap up at you from the forest floor, their egg-yolk colour a dead giveaway. This year there are a few of those too – which can also be incorporated into the recipe below.

The final one in a trio of recent pickings were field mushrooms, which this year seem to be bigger and better than ever. The huge ones are known locally as roses des prés, perhaps because of the rose-pink gills hiding beneath their shimmering white caps. As the mushrooms get older, the gills darken in colour and when you cook them, they release loads of juice which makes them a bit soggy. If you are in the happy position of being able to be choosy about pink or dark brown gills, go for pink. The mushrooms will be firmer and tastier, and will exude less liquid.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Needless to say, you should be extremely wary about picking any kind of wild mushroom unless you have lots of experience and really know your way around the mycological world. I’ve written before about the terrific mushroom vetting service that’s widely available in Switzerland, and mentioned it from time to time in my foodie slot on The English Show, Basel’s local radio station. In the Basel area, one name you need to know is Nicoletta Stalder. She’s the official mushroom-vetter (Amtliche Pilzkontrolleurin) for Biel-Benken, Ettingen, Oberwil, Binningen and Bottmingen. She doesn’t have any particular ‘surgery hours’, but you can ring her on 061 421 66 63 to make a date to go round and have her check your mushrooms. And remember the mushroomer’s golden rule: if in doubt, chuck it out…


Sue Style's cep tatins with walnuts and Parma ham

A cheeky little starter or light lunch dish of stewed ceps (bulk them out with cultivated if ceps are scarce) set on a disc of puff pastry. Serve a little salad on the side and top the tatins, if wished, with a blob of pumpkinseed and parsley pesto. 

Makes 6 tartlets, 8-10 cm in diameter
1 x 230g round of puff pastry
750g ceps, or mixed ceps, chanterelles and cultivated mushrooms
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 spring onions or 1 shallot, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
Salt and pepper
2 tbsp chopped parsley
2 tbsp chopped walnuts
75g Parma or other cured ham 

  • Unroll the pastry. Using a baking tin or ramekin as a template, invert the tin/ramekin onto the pastry and cut out 6 pastry discs. Put these in the fridge while you prepare the rest.
  • Trim the mushrooms, rinse and dry them carefully. Separate the caps and the feet and slice both quite thickly.
  • Heat the oil in a large frying pan and fry the spring onions or shallot and garlic over gentle heat till soft but not coloured. Stir in the mushrooms, add salt and pepper to taste, cover the pan and stew them gently till they release their juice. Uncover the pan, raise the heat and cook hard, stirring, to concentrate and evaporate the juices. Stir in the parsley, walnuts and ham, tip out onto a plate and leave to cool.
  • Trace 6 circles the same size as the baking tins or ramekins on some baking parchment and cut out 6 circles. Butter the insides of the ramekins/baking tins and lay the parchment circles in the bottom.
  • Fill the tins/ramekins to the top with mushrooms, pressing down lightly – they should be well filled. Lay a pastry disc on top of each one, tucking it just inside the rim. Snip the tops with scissors and refrigerate till you plan to bake them.
  • Heat the oven to 200C and bake the tartlets for 25-30 minutes or until the pastry is golden and the mushrooms thoroughly hot (ceramic ramekins will take a little longer than tins).
  • Run a knife around the inside edge, place a plate on top of each one and turn out. Peel off the baking parchment and serve with a little dressed salad.


My happy foragings, including many wild mushrooms, were immortalized in Fruits of the Forest, Cooking with Wild Food, winner (in its French edition, Recettes des Forêts et des Champs) of the 1995 Prix Mazille International at the Périgueux International Cookbook Fair. It’s long ago out of print, but used copies still pop up on the Internet,

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