Tom Parker Bowles
They call it the ‘Silent Hunt,’ a muted chase where sharp eyes take the place of gleaming guns. And quiet determination is preferable to dead-eyed aim. At its peak now, the fields and forests of Europe are teeming with folk in search of mushroom magic. Well, everywhere aside from Britain. Because here, with the exception of a few hardy souls, we wander past this beautiful bounty with barely a second glance, instead preferring our fungus neatly packed and risk-free, which seems a crying shame.
OK, so caution is certainly needed. And only a fool would rush in and gobble blind. Acute liver poisoning and respiratory collapse hardly make for the most civilised of dinners. But armed with a copy of any tome by Antonio Carluccio or Richard Mabey, plus a soupcon of common sense, the hunt for mushrooms turns a dreary walk into a thrill-packed stroll.
The cep (or porcini, ‘little pig’ in Italian) is a mighty fine find; unassuming and portly in form, it has a firm but delicate texture and the sort of taste that other mushrooms can only envy. Fried in butter and oil over a searing heat, they need only a whisper of garlic to create a dish to thrill even the most jaded of palates.
Truffles, of course, are the Holy Grail of the mycologists’ mission, with a scent somewhere between the sublime and the depraved. But these are best gathered by the pros, armed with a trained pig and profound local knowledge. Anyway, in Britain, we have nothing to match the white treasure of Alba, nor the black gold of the Perigord. There are truffles here. But compared to that dynamic duo, our native varieties are also-rans. But chanterelles, all gaudy, fluted elegance, grow in abundance and work wonders with a plate of runny scrambled eggs, while the good old field mushroom has serious meaty allure.
The list of magnificent mushrooms goes on and on - wood blewit, complete with violet cap, makes fine eating, along with the horn of plenty, (or trompettes de mort), clad in funereal black. The shaggy cap is a real find too, though only to be eaten, in the words of Jane Grigson, ‘when decidedly white and clean like a new barrister’s wig.’ There are plump puffballs bigger than footballs, horse mushrooms and hedgehogs, all begging to be picked. Soups and stews, pastas and pies, these fascinating fungi are as versatile as they are alluring. Remember to brush dirt off, rather than wash. And fry in a combination of oil and butter; this allows the fats to get hot, without burning. So get outside and join the glorious silent hunt. This is one feast made all the sweeter by being free.
MUSHROOMS ON TOAST (Serves 2)
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for bread
300g wild mushrooms, such as porcini or chanterelles (or button or field if no wild about)
2 cloves garlic, chopped
Squeeze lemon juice
Sea salt and freshly ground
Handful of flat-leafed parsley, roughly chopped
2 big slices of good bread
Heat the oil and butter in a frying pan over a medium heat until foaming. Add the mushrooms and stir, for about 2 minutes, until the juices start to bubble.
Throw in the garlic, lemon juice, salt and pepper and cook for another few minutes, until the mushrooms begin to colour. When soft, brown and a little shrunken, throw in the parsley and mix.
Anoint the bread with olive oil and cook on a griddle pan over a high heat until crisp and golden. Pile the mushrooms on top of the toast. The juices should soak through.
Taken from Let’s Eat - Recipes from My Kitchen Notebook by Tom Parker Bowles
Tom’s new book (published by Pavilion) is out now with a special price of £16.00 (normal cover price £25) including free UK p&p for Compass readers. Call 0844 576 8122 and quote reference CH1702
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