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Call of the wild

Categories: Expert guidance

In a three-part series, Luke Mackay explores three types of wild mushroom and their varying virtues

The finest mushrooms are considerably more expensive per kilogram than the freshest lobster or the most marbled, aged beef, and would be my automatic go-to in the unlikely event of a personal outbreak of vegetarianism, such is the variety, meaty texture and complex flavour. Over the course of the next few months, I’m going to take a look at three types of mushroom: those that disperse their spores with gills, those that use pores and finally, those that use neither method.

Those in the first group include some of the most familiar ‘iconic’ mushrooms—typically shaped with a classic central stem—the most readily available of which nowadays is probably the portobello, which is largely ubiquitous. Of the unique mushrooms, so those that disperse spores using neither gills or pores, the most widely known (and delicious) examples are probably chanterelles and my favourite, morels.

Mushrooms with pores are easily distinguishable from those with gills, looking as they do like a sponge. The holes of the sponge are actually the ends of a series of tubes within the mushroom cap. Spores are produced on the sides of these tubes and are eventually released when they fall down the tube, out the pore, and into the air. Wind, animals, and insects will inevitably carry them further afield.

Latin finery
Perhaps the grandest of all mushrooms, Boletus edulis (or, to strip it of its Latin finery, the ‘edible mushroom’) has pores and is highly prized in various European countries. Here in the UK it is known as ‘the penny bun’, while in France and Spain they know them as ceps and porcini respectively. I like ‘penny bun’—it has a pleasing English quaintness to it, so we shall call it that here.

Penny buns are mycorrhizal, meaning they form symbiotic relationships with the roots of trees. Thus, they are mainly found growing on the ground in woodland all over the UK—usually in coniferous, broad-leaved or mixed woodland between August and November. While relatively common (especially if you know where to look), penny buns are truly prized, due to their size—one was found recently on the Isle of Skye that weighed just over an astonishing three kilograms—their distinct and delicious flavour, and the fact they dry so very well, making them useful for myriad culinary uses.

They are considered a low risk wild mushroom by foragers, because there are no similar-looking toxic mushrooms. I once yelped with excitement when I discovered a beautiful group of what I thought were prize penny buns in Epping Forest (prime foraging woodland). “Try it,” said dad, knowingly. It was one of the bitterest things I had ever tasted, for I had discovered not Boletus edulis but its miserable cousin Tylopilus felleus, or ‘bitter bolete’ as it is more prosaically named. I have rarely been more disappointed. But it is merely unpleasant, rather than deadly—a fact that I like to think my father was aware of… 

Read Luke’s recipe for quail scotch eggs with penny buns