What's flat, black and eminently collectable?; Most of us have neither the time nor the know-how to forage for mushrooms Photograph by Jean Cazals
Before there was a photographic darkroom in the garden shed of the house that I grew up in, there were mushrooms. Not many mushrooms it has to be said, but my father just wanted to have a go. I was very young at the time and can only vaguely remember the deep wooden drawers fixed to the walls of the shed and filled with black soil. For what seemed like a long time, that was all there was. Then one day, I was quite overcome with excitement, as there - and it had not been there the day before - was this milky white thing pushing through the black stuff. Dad was quite excited, too, as I rushed into the house to tell him my wonderful news. I think we cultivated about nine in all - nine mushrooms, not nine pounds. I say we, but of course it was Dad really, though I always thought that I was somehow instrumental in this magical mushroom harvest. Some may look upon it as a total failure, but I thought it a huge success. But, sadly, it was soon time to return to the stalls of Bury market for half-a-pound of open cups in a brown paper bag, and to replace the drawers of soil with drawers of Kodak Ivory paper.

Most cultivated varieties that I know of like the dark. The mushrooms in the caves of Saumur, in the Loire, thrive in their dank and dark atmosphere. The spores can grow at an alarming rate, overnight and fast. There, in these huge caves, the pungency of mushroom is overpowering, and it is staggering to see just how many the growers seem to be able to cultivate. It would make my father green with envy.

I think it was Jane Grigson in her wonderful book, The Mushroom Feast (l975, Penguin, pounds 11, paperback), who pointed out a very curious fact. Mrs Grigson was visiting mushroom caves in France (it may well have been the ones at Saumur, they are so well known), and there was a strange sign at the entrance. It informed visitors that if there were any women among them, would they kindly refrain from entering the caves if it were the time of their menstrual cycle as it would have a detrimental affect on the growth of the spores. It just goes to show what a spooky thing a fungus is. And Mummy, why aren't you coming to look at the lovely mushrooms?

It is around this time of the year that knowing people go foraging for wild and free fungi. My friend Franco Taruschio of The Walnut Tree, near Abergavenny, goes up into the hills near his restaurant as often as is possible to stock up cavernous freezers with ceps - or porcini, as he, being Italian, would say. Once, I was invited to go along with him. He picked nine kilos, I picked one-and-a-half. He laughed and gave me some of his to take home. But as most of us have neither the time nor the know- how to collect these wonderful mushrooms, I am devoting the recipes today to the collection of easier specimens: the ones in plastic blue boxes.

The first recipe is an adaptation of Franco's extraordinary Vincis Grassi Maceratese, which involves layers of lasagne, rich bechamel, porcini, prosciutto and truffles. It is good beyond belief. My lowlier version involves similar ingredients - though not the truffles - and has a generous quality about it. Just like Franco.

Green lasagne with bacon and mushrooms serves 9

for the bechamel

1.1 1itres/2 pints milk

4 cloves

1 large onion, peeled and chopped

2 bay leaves

salt

110g/4oz butter

110g/4oz flour

275mls/10fl oz single cream

freshly grated nutmeg

pepper

200g/7oz dried green lasagne - about 9 sheets

700g/112 lbs large, flat black mushrooms

a little olive oil

juice of 1 lemon

2 cloves garlic

225g/8oz bacon (use thinly sliced Italian pancetta, or tasty streaky bacon)

2 tbsp freshly chopped oregano

4 tbsp freshly grated Parmesan

85g/3oz butter

1 bunch fresh sage, leaves only

It is almost essential to use a heat-diffuser pad for cooking the bechamel sauce as it scorches easily. Also, use a heavy-bottomed saucepan.

Heat together the milk, cloves, onion, bay and a little salt. Simmer for a few minutes, cover and allow the flavours to mingle for about half an hour. In another pan, melt the butter and stir in the flour. Make a roux and gently cook the butter and flour together for a minute or two, but on no account allow it to colour; it must stay pale. Strain the milk into the roux and vigorously whisk together until smooth (this always gets rid of any lumps). On the lowest possible heat, with the diffuser pad, set the sauce to cook. You may think that the sauce is very thick to begin with, but, as it cooks, the consistency will become silky and unctuous. Do not cover the sauce, stir from time to time with a wooden spoon and cook for about one hour. Add the cream, nutmeg and pepper, mix in thoroughly, check for salt and cook for a further five minutes. Strain again into a clean pan and cover to prevent a skin forming. Set aside and keep warm.

Pre-heat the oven to 400F/200C/gas mark 6.

Cook the sheets of lasagne in well salted, boiling water until just firm. Drain, rinse briefly under cold running water and lay on a clean tea towel. Put the mushrooms, quite tightly packed, on to a roasting tray. Drizzle each mushroom with some olive oil and squeeze over the lemon juice. Slice the garlic, tuck under the mushrooms and season. Bake in the oven for 30-40 minutes, until well cooked and, when cool, slice in half. Grill the bacon carefully until crisp.

I prefer to assemble the lasagne in a container that can go in the fridge and then cut out portions when it is cold and bake them on a tray. This makes the edges and the Parmesan topping of each piece crusted and golden, instead of the sloppy wodge that you can end up with if the dish is cooked whole. Take a rectangular metal tin or shallow plastic box and smear the base with bechamel. Put in a layer of lasagne and then another thin coating of bechamel. Sprinkle with one tablespoon of oregano. Cover with half the mushrooms, add a little more bechamel and then half the bacon. Cover with another layer of lasagne. Repeat this process. It is important that the top layer is lasagne, well covered with a layer of bechamel. Cover with cling film and refrigerate for at least six hours or overnight to set.

Pre-heat the oven to 400F/200C/gas mark 6.

With a sharp knife, cut the lasagne into nine equal portions. Carefully lay each slice on a flat baking tray with space in between the portions (use two trays if one is too small). Evenly sprinkle each slice with Parmesan. Bake for 30 minutes until the lasagne is bubbling and golden. Meanwhile, melt the butter until foaming and fry the sage leaves until crisp. Season with a little salt. Using a fish slice, transfer the lasagne to individual hot plates and spoon a little of the sage leaves and butter over each serving.

The dish is a rich one and only needs an accompanying crisp green salad, if that. I would find it too much for a first course, but if used as such, then this recipe will obviously feed more.

Persillade of mushrooms, serves 4

This is the best version of garlic mushrooms I know. Once again, it uses flat black mushrooms - they really do have the best flavour anyway. Use it as a first course or as a vegetable to go with grilled steak or roast lamb.

20 flat black mushrooms

olive oil

juice and thinly-pared rind of 2 small lemons

salt and pepper

110g/4oz fresh breadcrumbs

1 large bunch flat-leafed parsley, leaves only

4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

l10g/4oz melted butter

Pre-heat the oven to 400F/200C/gas mark 6.

Cook the mushrooms as above, omitting the garlic. Leave to cool on the tray. Make the breadcrumbs in a food processor, then add the parsley, garlic and lemon rind. Process until well blended; the crumbs will turn a lovely green colour, but don't overwork or the mixture will become pasty. Carefully spoon crumbs over each mushroom and then very gently press in the mixture with your fingers. Spoon the butter evenly over each mushroom. Turn the oven up to 450F/230C/gas mark 8 and return the mushrooms to the top shelf. Bake for ten minutes until the crumbs are starting to brown. Finish off under the grill if necessary. Serve immediately

Comments