Food and Drink: Go for the ones with nibble marks: Recipe

DESPITE the rain last weekend I again took to the woods with my Italian friends and am pleased to report that at least five of the porcini being sold in the Alba restaurant, 107 Whitecross Street, London EC1 (071-588 1798), were picked by my own hands.

The real pleasure, however, was watching the owner's father, Mr Venerandi, handling our catch. He was born in northern Tuscany and has gathered mushrooms from childhood, as have generations before him. He will tell you never to wash a wild mushroom - it will waterlog the gills and utterly spoil it. Rather, take a pocket knife as you hunt and trim the dirt from the roots straight after

picking.

Once home, the real cleaning begins. Depending on the variety and condition, wipe or peel the caps and stems, trimming away any spots where squirrels have nibbled. Do not be put off by nibble marks, they are a good key to edibility. Hunt for varieties that you know. I've found a patch of what I think are delicious prince mushrooms, but I am waiting for a second opinion before making risotto.

Adam Alexander, of St Briavels, Gloucestershire, set out several weeks ago to check on the family's three llamas and 14 Shetland ponies. To his delight, he found a patch of what he took to be horse mushrooms, some as big as plates.

They were lovely, he writes: 'deep pink gills and light brown skins. No maggots in the stems or holes in the caps.' This, in fact, makes me think they were equally edible field mushrooms. Yet when he took them home to cook for dinner, his youngest son suggested they leave a note to explain the cause of the family's imminent death. Nobody died and the soup was consumed to the last drop. Mr Alexander will receive two bottles of Shaw & Smith 1991 sauvignon blanc from Winecellars in south London. Here is his recipe, which would be delicious even made with supermarket button mushrooms. It specifies the cap, but by all means cook the stalks if they are not too tough.

Mushroom Soup

Serves 8

Ingredients: 2lb/1kg field mushroom caps, peeled and diced

1pt/600ml chicken stock

1 large onion, peeled and diced

1 large potato, skinned and roughly cubed

4oz/125g butter or olive oil

Sea salt and black pepper

1/2 pt/300ml milk

1-2tbs fresh marjoram, finely chopped

3floz/100ml single cream

Preparation: Sweat the onion and potatoes in the butter over a low flame until the onion is translucent, about 15 minutes. Add the mushrooms and cook gently until the mushrooms have released most of their liquid. Add stock and simmer until the potato is soft, about 10 minutes. Puree the soup and return to pan. Over a low heat, add milk, marjoram and seasoning. Simmer for a minute or two, then serve, finishing each soup plate with 2tsp cream.

Next week, more mushrooms. New recipes are welcome for our next category, cooking with pumpkins. Send the recipes, stating the source, to Emily Green, Recipe, the Independent, 40 City Road, London EC1Y 2DB. The prize will be two bottles of a delicious Italian sauvignon and chardonnay blend, 1991 Avignonesi Bianco, from Reid Wines near Bristol.

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