This is the season to go mushroom hunting. Wholesome as this may sound, I would commend the activity more seriously to gamblers than Girl Guides. There is no bettering the pleasure of the hunt, the spotting of something and having it. The 'gotcha' factor is heightened by a few defeats. Coming back empty handed is rather like losing at the races.

Last week in the New Forest I lost. There were no porcini (English: penny bun; Latin: Boletus edulis; French: ceps). According to Alexander Aitken, forager and chef-proprietor of Le Poussin restaurant in Brockenhurst, it had been too dry and only the tree funghi, such as oyster mushrooms and chicken of the woods, were out. He gamely employs them in his restaurant, though, unlike Mr Aitken, I would not make a tagliatelle sauce with them. Pickling might do. However, for cooking purposes, they have so little flavour, one gets better results from button mushrooms.

But then, I would say that. I was taught to pick mushrooms by Italian friends, Rudi Venerandi and Carla Vaschetto, who would not put on their wellies for anything less than porcini.

Nor would they rootle around unless they had seen amanita - those fairy-tale red caps with white spots. Italians call them 'spy' mushrooms. Don't eat them: they are poisonous. But they favour the same spots as porcini.

Amanita are such good markers that, several years ago in the gloom of a heavy rainstorm, Rudi noticed one when he was speeding along in a car and skidded to a stop. We burst out of the car, slipped through the woods and returned 20 minutes later, soaking wet, carrying 10kg of porcini.

While Italians pick porcini, the French and the Polish tend to snip them, convinced the roots will revive. No matter their nationality, any good mushroom hunter will carry a knife to trim wild mushrooms on the spot, so grime and grit will not damage others in a basket. And it's always a basket; never a plastic bag. Some say this allows the spores to disperse. It certainly prevents the mushrooms from sweating.

During our first foray, I insisted we pick at least one sample of every variety we found. Back at home, Rudi's Tuscan-born father toyed with an unfamiliar mushroom, turning it slowly in his gnarled gardener's fingers. 'Ah, yes,' he said, 'we used to eat these.' Rudi's mother remembered no such meal, and glowered disapprovingly. As he handed it over to his son, she circled the table, berating her husband in Italian. The son agreed we should eat it and, to Mrs Venerandi's obvious horror, Carla fried up the mystery mushroom. We nibbled at it, declared it not very interesting, and the old woman snatched the remainder from her son's plate with such speed that we all exploded with laughter.

Then we feasted on our porcini. Carla is from Piedmont, Italy's best funghi grounds, and she cooked. To start, she took the freshest specimens, wiped away what little dirt remained and sliced them about a quarter of an inch thick. She whisked two eggs, poured out some seasoned, sourdough breadcrumbs on a plate and heated some olive oil in a large frying pan, until a haze rose. She reduced the heat slightly, and, having dipped the slices in the egg and then the crumbs, she quickly fried them. We stood by with wedges of lemon, allowing the mushroom slices only seconds to drain on kitchen paper before gobbling them down. The delicate, woody flavour with its particular wild scent was captured in a hot, melting mouthful.

Next, she made a porcini risotto (to those in search of a good recipe, I commend The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan, Macmillan, pounds 20). Do not be tempted to use an old, flaccid porcino whose flesh has gone soggy, in a risotto or anything else. They are only fit for drying.

Several years ago, Carla moved back to Piedmont. When I visited her last year, we went to a 150-year- old family restaurant near Alba, Trattoria della Post, where a porcini dish was served that translates well in British kitchens. Fresh porcini had been diced, and mixed with sweet minced beef, lemon, olive oil and garlic. It was served rather like a steak tartare, garnished with yet more porcini, this time in thin slices, and a grating of white truffle. It is spectacular even without the truffle.

The best dish for a combination of dry and fresh porcini, or dried porcini and button mushrooms, is a lasagne. A particularly rich version is often served at the Walnut Tree restaurant in Gwent. The chef, Franco Taruschio, understands how the bechamel must be creamy and rich. He insists on many layers of soft, home-made pasta, not a couple of rubbery sheets. And he partners the porcini with bacon or ham, white truffle and loads of Parmesan. The recipe may be found in Leaves from the Walnut Tree (Pavilion, pounds 15).

The night before writing this, I awoke to the sound of a great downpour. I drifted back to sleep thinking I must clear the plane tree leaves from my gutter and head back to the New Forest.

Recommended: 'Mushrooms and other fungi of Great Britain and Europe' by Roger Phillips (Pan paperback, pounds 13.99).

(Photograph omitted)

Comments