I have a very clear memory of my first solo mushroom-hunting excursion. I must have been seven years old and had always joined my father on his trips. With a basket and knife and the brilliant mushroom book by Rogers and Phillips, off I went. That evening, I was basking in my parents? and sister?s admiration, when my mother asked me whether I was sure they were edible. I read out the name and description and finally, ?You see, it says here Edible, delicious, but hal? halu? well I don?t know what that word is.? I think they carried on eating them.
It wasn?t my last mushroom hunt, and as I headed to Holland for the August bank holiday weekend I was anxious. The frequent weather updates from my father had not sounded promising. ?The figs are the best ever, but I don?t think we?ll get any boletus this year ? it?s too dry.? A week before I went home that all changed and, while some complained of the wet weather, I was thrilled. Sure enough, boletus were springing up everywhere and parasols were better than ever before. I don?t think a single meal went by without mushrooms of some sort.
The best way of hunting boletus is on horseback. Mr Pooter, a Welsh cob, is my favourite ? less trouble to hop on and off and a very slow walk. A bicycle works too. Kerb-crawling can be done, but you need to lean as far out of the window as possible. Amazingly enough, in our part of Holland, the majority of sand tracks that criss-cross the landscape have remained, providing favourite spots for fungi under beech and oak avenues where there is a combination of sun and shade. We pick pounds every year, getting up early to beat the professional pickers and mycologists.
Having cleaned the mushrooms and cut out all the wormy spots, we cut them up and freeze them or dry them, the latter causing smelly clothes in the drying cupboard. Both work well and give completely different results. The frozen boletus should be cooked (fried or baked) from frozen, while the dried ones need to be rehydrated in boiling water (which can be used for stock). Good young boletus are marvellous raw, sliced finely with garlic, parsley, lemon and olive oil.
Our main quarry, Boletus edulis, is the best known of the boletus mushrooms and is used throughout Europe ? in Holland they are known as eekhorntjes brood, or squirrel?s bread, though I don?t think the red squirrels that abound eat them. A sturdy white stem leads to a nutty brown top ? the underside has pores that, at a young age, are white and slowly turn yellow and then an olive colour.
As for other mushrooms, we never take chances ? anymore, that is. In France, you used to be able to take unfamiliar fungi to the pharmacy and they would tell you whether it was edible or not; sadly no longer the case. There are a few others that we pick. The past three years have seen an exciting return in our neck of the woods ? after an absence of about 20 years, the chanterelle is making a comeback. It is a complete mystery why this little golden horn-shaped mushroom disappeared and an even greater one as to why, three years ago on a mossy bank, we found a few. They have increased every year and are an incredible delicacy; it is like finding gold when you spot them nestling in the moss.
Field mushrooms don?t seem to be so prolific with us, though about 10 years ago we picked buckets full from one field. Since then, nothing. My father picked lots of ink-caps once, but after a disastrous freezing experiment (they started self-digesting in the freezer, leaving a revolting mess), those are outlawed. Russulas grow aplenty, but, as my mother has remained rather nervous after my first experiment with unknown mushrooms, I stick to what I know.
Nothing beats mushrooms on toast. Fry in butter and olive oil with garlic and parsley. However, if you want to try something new?
Ingredients: ? boletus ? potatoes ? garlic
? shallots ? salt and pepper ? butter ? cream/stock ? Parmesan
1. Grease a baking dish and layer finely sliced potatoes, boletus, garlic and shallots, adding knobs of butter and salt and pepper between each layer.
2. Once the dish is filled, pour over cream or stock (depending on diet) and grate some Parmesan over the top. Bake for 40 minutes at 180ºC. Wonderful with wild boar.
Boletus sauce for pasta
Ingredients: ? dried boletus ? olive oil
? shallots ? garlic ? tinned tomatoes ? parsley ? salt and pepper
1. Soak the boletus in boiling water for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, sauté the shallots and garlic in olive oil.
2. Strain off the dried mushrooms, keeping the liquor. Add the mushrooms to the shallots and garlic and cook for five minutes.
3. Add the tinned tomatoes and mushroom liquor, season and simmer for 20 minutes. Add the parsley just before serving ? best with tagliatelle and some Parmesan.