Recipe: If you go down to the woods today . . .

'HAVE you lost something?' It was a logical question from a passing dog-walker. We were standing in steady drizzle in a clearing next to an oak tree in Highgate Wood, north London, staring at the ground. When she realised my companions were Italians, the penny dropped. 'Ah, mushroom hunters . . .'

To begin our series on cooking with mushrooms, I turned to two veteran mushroom hunters, Carla Vaschetto and Rudi Venerandi, proprietors of the Alba restaurant, 107 Whitecross Street, London EC1 (071-588 1798). Just now the special on their menu are penny buns, more commonly known as the French cep or the Italian porcino. The Alba's haul of beautiful little chanterelles and huge, fresh ceps is not from a London park but from a wood in the Home Counties. Across town, Clarke's restaurant in Kensington Church Street is serving ceps from the same place.

Porcini will be in woods, with clearings that catch a bit of sun, probably near beech and oaks. The weather has been perfect for mushrooms, and wild ones can be found in quality greengrocers. Last year, good-sized porcini were fetching as much as pounds 5 each in Soho's Berwick Street market.

So prized are these large, meaty boletus mushrooms that the Italians have outlawed the hunting of them at night with carbonic lights. The fungi absorb enough phosphorus to glow in the dark, and the lamps were giving the few hi-tech hunters an unfair advantage over everyone else.

Amateur mushroom trackers should beware. We also reaped a fair number of inedible mushrooms and one rather dangerous one, Boletus satanas. The good news about satanic ones is that they tend to signal fertile territory.

It helps to go with experienced hunters. Yet this, too, has pitfalls. Neither of my Italian companions had been trained to recognise the Crawshay Cap as edible, and rejected it.

There is one reference book I would trust to identify mushrooms - Mushrooms and other fungi of Great Britain & Europe by Roger Phillips (Pan Books, pounds 12.99). Study them closely - colour of the gills and stalk, tendency to bruise and so on. Inedible and even dangerous varieties can closely resemble delicious ones.

To begin our series, I offer a Piedmontese recipe from the Alba kitchens for fried porcini. It should only be made with absolutely fresh mushrooms, as the quick frying simply captures and intensifies the delicate taste and firm texture. The flavour is rather like that of ultra- fresh cod, with a tinge of woodiness. The following recipe could conceivably serve four as a starter, but I stood over the oven and ate the entire batch myself.


Serves 2-4 as starter

Ingredients: caps of 2 large porcini, about 6oz/170g

1 egg, beaten

4oz/115g finely ground breadcrumbs

salt and pepper

extra virgin olive oil

1 lemon

Preparation: Remove caps and wipe clean. Reserve stalks. Slice caps about 1/4 cm thick. Beat egg and season with salt and pepper. Dip mushroom slices in egg, then roll in breadcrumbs. Heat oil until its perfume rises and it bubbles only gently. Quickly fry mushrooms and drain on kitchen paper. Serve hot with lemon wedges. The stalks can be stored in a cool, dark place until the following day, then sauteed in olive oil, butter and a bit of garlic and served with finely chopped parsley as a pasta sauce. Equally, they could be cooked into a stock to go into a musky, distinctive sauce.

Next week we will print a selection of your mushroom recipes. New entries, stating the source, should be sent to Emily Green, Recipe, Weekend Features, the Independent, 40 City Road, London EC1Y 2DB. Those whose recipes we publish will receive two bottles of Shaw & Smith 1991 sauvignon blanc from Winecellars in south London.

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