Raw in salad, folded into omelettes, sautéed and in soup: stunning recipes for sensational ceps

The first time that I became aware of a mushroom called anything other than just that, was when I spent most of my last two school holidays in the kitchens of a local French restaurant, La Normandie (at the time, one of the most highly regarded continental restaurants in the country), in the hinterland of my home town of Bury, Lancashire. I had already decided, from the age of about 13 or 14, I guess, that cooking appealed to me more than anything else – whatever the school's career advisor might have kindly suggested, bless his heart.

The first time that I became aware of a mushroom called anything other than just that, was when I spent most of my last two school holidays in the kitchens of a local French restaurant, La Normandie (at the time, one of the most highly regarded continental restaurants in the country), in the hinterland of my home town of Bury, Lancashire. I had already decided, from the age of about 13 or 14, I guess, that cooking appealed to me more than anything else – whatever the school's career advisor might have kindly suggested, bless his heart.

At La Normandie I poached some trout and I killed my first lobster. I learnt to bottle, cork-up and label imported French wine in a proper cellar, and was also allowed to mix several gin and tonics – and put money into a till that pinged. I was, further, patiently taught how to butcher a side of Scotch beef and separate it into its choicest (French) parts: the neatest rump steaks, immaculately trimmed entrecôtes, tender little fillets and fatty-edged and marbled ribs that were to feed two, once grilled until blackened and served with the most gorgeous Béarnaise sauce and pommes frites.

And then there were those funny little plastic bags full of what, quite honestly, resembled nothing more than tree bark yet smelt of pigsties – just think of this analogy the next time you open a bag of dried ceps. These, in the early Seventies, had to be sent up from London by train (along with dried morels, jambon de Bayonne, good olive oil and vinegar) and, for me, were as exciting to open as any Christmas present.

And it was while using these ceps that I also truly understood how to make a superbly rich cream sauce – unlike anything I had attempted at home, that's for sure. Would I be staying on at school to take my A-levels? Not a chance, ducky.

It was to be many years later, however, that I would see, marvel at and then finally eat my very first fresh cep. But as the occasion took place in Italy I should, strictly speaking, admit that it was to be porcini that were placed before my friend and I for lunch on that hot sunny day, high up on a mountain overlooking the Mediterranean sea. And, what's more, they were quite raw – but, my word, how staggeringly good they were to eat.

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