... you could pick lots of delicious, edible wild mushrooms. They are perfect for risottos and just as wonderful on their own. Mark Hix gets picking and mixing.

Since I got into picking fungi in Epping Forest I don't think I've bought a button mushroom. It only takes a couple of forays to become hooked on the thrill of wild mushroom hunting, and buying mushrooms from shops seems far too tame by comparison. Like joining an undergrowth cult, you'll want to get out there with the outdoors types scouring the woodland for hidden treasure, and if you go down to the woods you'll come across foragers of all nationalities, each hunting for different varieties.

Since I got into picking fungi in Epping Forest I don't think I've bought a button mushroom. It only takes a couple of forays to become hooked on the thrill of wild mushroom hunting, and buying mushrooms from shops seems far too tame by comparison. Like joining an undergrowth cult, you'll want to get out there with the outdoors types scouring the woodland for hidden treasure, and if you go down to the woods you'll come across foragers of all nationalities, each hunting for different varieties.

In most other European countries, mushrooms, like berries and herbs, are an obvious source of wild food and the custom of picking them is part of the way of life. Here we've only recently come to realise that there is meaty vegetarian food in the forest for free. But competition is hotting up. If you want to join us, now is the time to give it a go, though I'm not sure seasoned mushroom gatherers welcome newcomers to their territory. And some forests like Epping are demanding that mushroom gatherers have a licence.

Beginners should go with someone who knows what they are doing, or consider joining an organised expedition. In France you can take any wild mushrooms you're not sure about to the chemist to be identified, but it won't work in the nearest branch of Boots. Mushrooms by Roger Phillips is the best book I've come across and comes in a pocket-sized version for on-the-spot identifications when you're out in the woods.

Of the many that are edible – and beware, some varieties have lookalikes that aren't good for you – oyster mushrooms, or pleurotes, are among the most easily recognisable. They're plentiful on dead trees and if you hit paydirt you could soon have a carrier bag full for free.

For the restaurants, our best source of top quality fungi is Scotland where teams of locals pick them to be sent straight to London. We get through ceps, girolles and morels like they are going out of fashion. The season is shortish, and they are best eaten fresh with very little done to them, so we can't resist.

In the States you rarely see wild mushrooms for sale and diners are somewhat suspicious of them. On a trip to Boston, I noticed some porcini growing in one front garden on a posh housing estate as we drove back after lunch. I got the driver to screech to a halt and we nipped out and gathered a couple of kilos in a few minutes, like kids scrumping apples. But that night's dinner guests didn't know what to make of my discovery and just pushed the fungi round their plates. They only know the cultivated varieties like shiitake, oyster and Portobello. But these can never match the delicate flavour of true forest mushrooms, and are best used for Oriental cookery. Nor is there the same thrill buying them as there is getting up at dawn (or raiding someone's lawn) to pick them yourself.

Preparing Wild Mushrooms

As far as possible try not to wash wild mushrooms as this can make them boil when you sauté them, destroying their delicate flavour. Either brush off any soil or wipe them with a damp cloth. Mushrooms such as ceps can be scraped clean with a small knife as can pied de mouton. Chanterelles and girolles really just need a brief trim.

Fried duck's egg with ceps

Serves 4

Along with eggs laid by quail and specialist breeds of chicken, duck eggs seem to be becoming more popular. They have a large, pale yolk and they're great for frying or scrambling.

400g ceps, cleaned and sliced
60g unsalted butter
1 clove of garlic, peeled and crushed
1tbsp chopped parsley
4 duck eggs
Olive oil for frying

Melt half the butter in a frying pan and gently cook the ceps for 2-3 minutes until they begin to colour and soften. Add the garlic and the rest of the butter and season with salt and pepper. Meanwhile gently fry the duck eggs in a non-stick frying pan until just set and season the white with a little salt. Turn the eggs out on to plates, add the parsley to the mushrooms and spoon over the eggs.

Porcini salad with shaved Parmesan

Serves 4

When you have perfect fresh, firm ceps (porcini) this is a delicious and simple light starter to show them off. I've had this a few times but the best was at the Old Manor House in Romsey, probably because I knew that Mauro the owner had picked the mushrooms within the last 24 hours. If you like, add a few leaves of rocket.

400g firm, fresh ceps (allow 80-100g ceps per person)
Juice of 1/2 a lemon
3tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
50-60g Reggiano Parmesan

Clean the ceps by wiping them with a damp cloth and trimming any soil from the stalks with a small knife. Slice them thinly and lay flat on to four plates. Mix the lemon juice with the olive oil and season with sea salt and black pepper. Drizzle over the ceps and leave for about 5 minutes.

Shave the Parmesan with a vegetable peeler or a sharp knife and scatter over the ceps.

Wild mushrooms with creamed polenta

Serves 4

Polenta can be rather bland made the traditional way just with water. If you are serving it with a meaty stew it's fine, but when it's accompanying more delicate ingredients like mushrooms it needs a bit of body, so make it richer and more interesting with milk, garlic, herbs and Parmesan. Either a mixture of seasonal wild mushrooms or just one variety works for this dish.

2tbsp olive oil
450-500g wild mushrooms, cleaned and prepared
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
60g butter
1tbsp chopped parsley

For the polenta

400ml milk
1 clove of garlic, peeled and crushed
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
1 bay leaf
40g quick cooking polenta
40g freshly grated Parmesan
40ml double cream

To make the polenta, bring the milk to the boil in a thick-bottomed pan then add the garlic, bay leaf and seasoning. Simmer for another 5 minutes then whisk in the polenta. Turn the heat down as low as it will go and cook slowly for 10 minutes, whisking f every so often so it doesn't stick to the bottom of the pan. Add the cream and Parmesan and cook for a further 5 minutes. Take off the heat, cover, and put to one side until required.

Meanwhile heat the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed frying pan and gently cook the mushrooms for about 5 minutes until lightly coloured. Add the garlic and butter, season with salt and pepper and stir well. Cook for a few more minutes on a lower heat until the mushrooms are soft. Add the parsley. To serve, spoon the polenta on to four plates and scatter the mushrooms and butter over the top of each.

Wild mushroom risotto

Serves 4

Except in a few very specialist delis, arborio used to be the only risotto rice you could find in this country. Now vialone nano and carnaroli are available in supermarkets, too. Use any of these for risotto, because they allow the stock to be absorbed without the grains falling apart and releasing too much starch. Result: firm, creamy risotto, not starchy and soggy, which is what you'll get with pudding rice. The basis of any risotto is good stock. You can't get away with any old cube, but you can now find mushroom stock cubes and porcini powder in specialist shops and Italian delis.

For the mushroom stock

1 small onion, peeled and roughly chopped
Half a leek, roughly chopped and washed
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
1tbsp vegetable oil
200g button mushrooms, washed and roughly chopped
10g dried ceps, soaked for 2 hours in a little warm water
A few sprigs of thyme
5 black peppercorns
1 bay leaf

For the risotto

200g carnaroli rice
70g butter
Mushroom stock
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
1tbsp double cream
200g seasonal wild mushrooms, prepared, cleaned and chopped into pieces of similar size
1tbsp parsley, finely chopped
20g grated Parmesan

First make the stock. Gently cook the onion, leek and garlic in the vegetable oil without colouring until soft. Add the rest of the ingredients, cover with about 1 1/2 litres of water, bring to the boil and simmer for 1 hour, skimming occasionally. Strain through a fine-meshed sieve and keep hot if using straightaway. The stock should be strongly flavoured; if it's not, reduce it until the flavour is concentrated.

To make the risotto take a thick-bottomed pan and melt 30g of the butter, add the rice and stir for a minute on a low heat with a wooden spoon. Gradually add the stock a little at a time, stirring constantly and ensuring that each addition of liquid has been fully absorbed by the rice before adding the next. Season with salt and pepper.

When the rice is almost cooked add 40g of the butter and the cream, check the seasoning and correct if necessary. The risotto should be a moist consistency, not too stodgy.

Meanwhile cook the mushrooms in a little olive oil for a minute or so. Stir the mushrooms into the risotto with the parsley and Parmesan and serve it immediately.

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