Food: The joy of cepes

Whether called porcini, or plain Penny Bun, Boletus edulis is a magical mushroom. Photograph by Jason Lowe

The rare crenellated morel, the girolle, chanterelle, and the latter's cousin: the funereal black trompette de la mort (or, more prosaically, in English, the horn of plenty) are all delicious. So, too, are the diminutive fairly-ring mushrooms (mousserons), giant puffballs, and the weird-looking and dicey gyromitres, which need very thorough cooking to rid themselves of toxins. But for me, the Penny Bun (porcini in Italian, cepe to the French) wins hands down. Once cooked, a fresh one had the flavour of a thousand cultivated mushrooms together with a texture that has the meatiness of pink calf liver. When fried in best butter or olive oil, garlic and parsley, I know not of a finer pong.

I remain unsure why the English call them the Penny Bun. The "bun" must refer to its shape, and although it comes in various guises - from tightly closed to open cup - as the former, it can resemble the looks of a dumpy lady with her hair tied in a neat bun: her wobbly little cheery head is the plump stalk, her bun on top the mushroom cap. Well, I'm convinced anyway.

The French call cepes "bouchon" - a wine cork - more likely, a Champagne cork. If you are lucky enough to pick them like this, treasure them well; if you have to buy some, however, have plenty of the shekels to hand.

It is now relatively easy to find dried cepes in the supermarket (I am going to refer to them as cepes from now on as this is the name I grew up with in a French kitchen). Many of you may be more familiar with the name porcini because Italian is it just now. Well, cepes they were when I was a young apprentice; cepes, too, in the cellophane packets I used to buy from the sharpish madame at Epicerie Francaise in Soho in the late 1970s; and semi-dried cepes of such extraordinary beauty in Nice market in June that I felt you should see them here in a full-colour photograph.

Of course, the un-dried-real-live-growing-fungus, has been a native of these shores for some time now - even before my friend Antonio Carluccio appeared on the scene wielding his porcini stick among the damp ferns of Esher and woods elsewhere. I, too, used to motor down to Esher of a dim, early October morn to scrabble about like a demented piglet (the word porcini clearly has something to do with porcine). It was quite good fun really. I found a few, but I was never terribly good at it. Used to get lost a lot, drifting around erratically, forever foraging for the next one yet too impatient to actually find it. I finally gave up one deeply depressing morning. Emerging (miraculously) into a clearing I found a jolly Polish family with about five baskets-full, one of which was chock- a-block with tiny cheery heads with buns on top ... Clutching my measly harvest in filthy, lacerated hands and sporting a flat smile, I bade them a cursory good morning and fled.

Note: The following recipes are best made with fresh cepes. However, if the dried ones are as good looking as the ones you see in the picture, then all should be well. Re-constitute in a little lukewarm water for several minutes, gently squeeze out the excess and use as required.

Cepe and potato soup, serves 4

Ann Taruschio - rather than her chef/ husband Franco - cooked this soup for me in the kitchens of their restaurant, The Walnut Tree Inn, near Abergavenny. It seemed to be simply a sloppy bowl of pureed potato with slices of fried cepes on top and a little cream. The cepes - or porcini in that kitchen - had been collected by Franco himself. I was then thrilled to discover the recipe in their book, Leaves from the Walnut Tree (Pavilion pounds 9.99), so here it is. Note: If you use dried cepes, add the soaking water to the potatoes as they cook.

200g fresh cepes, thinly sliced or diced

5 medium potatoes

2 cloves of garlic

60g butter (I found that I wanted to use a little more)

200ml single cream

1-2 tbsp chopped parsley

freshly grated Parmesan

salt and pepper

Peel and roughly chop the potatoes, just cover with water, add salt and the garlic. Cook until collapsed. Pass the whole lot (water included) through the fine blade of a mouli-legumes (vegetables mill) - try not to use a food processor as this will make the soup too smooth. Return to the heat. Add half the butter, freshly ground pepper (I like white rather than black here, though can you find to find white peppercorns in any supermarket?), and taste for salt. Beat the mixture well with a balloon whisk; if it is too thick, add some water.

A few minutes before serving, add the cepes, which have been sauteed in the remaining butter, with the cream, parsley and seasoning. Serve with Parmesan sprinkled over the surface.

Cepes en persillade, serves 3-4

If you read my piece on garlic the other week, this is where persillade truly comes into its own. It is infinitely better when made with fresh cepes, or, if you can find them, frozen. However, sliced dried ones that have been desiccated from lusciously fat specimens can give surprisingly good results.

for the persillade

100g fresh breadcrumbs

1 bunch flat leaf parsley, leaves only

3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

salt and pepper

thinly pared rind of a small lemon, chopped

3-4 tbsp olive oil

250g fresh cepes, sliced, or 150g dried

1-2 tbsp olive oil

salt and pepper

juice of the lemon (see above)

Pre-heat a radiant grill to medium. First make the persillade. Put the breadcrumbs in a food processor. Add the parsley, garlic, seasoning and lemon rind. Process until well blended; the crumbs will turn a lovely green colour, but don't overwork or the mixture will become pasty. Tip onto a tray to dry out a little.

Briskly fry the cepes in the olive oil with very little seasoning until pale golden. Add the lemon juice and tip all into a shallow oven-proof dish. Spread them out a bit and then evenly sprinkle with the persillade. Spoon over the olive oil in dribbles. Place under the grill, but don't put the dish too close to the heat as you want the crumbs to brown gently, soaking up the juices of the cepes as they crust. Serve at once.

Guinea fowl with cepes and cream, serves 4

Some might say that this is one of those creamy French dishes of yesteryear. Too true, sadly. As far as I am concerned, they are as important a part of good cooking as ever they were. The reason many of today's young chefs don't cook things like this anymore is because they don't know how to do it. To begin with, it involves gently roasting a whole bird.

You only ever seem to see a breast of poultry on menus at the moment, but it is often described as "roasted". More often than not, this "roasted breast of chicken with Provencal vegetables", say, will then be cut into neat little slices, "built" into a moronic stack, cemented together by a smearing of tapenade, grilled aubergines, foetus fennel and, naturally, extra virgin olive oil splattered as from a permanent dripping tap. A roast? My bum.

A breast of chicken is a thing for the frying pan: gilded lightly in a scrap of butter, heat turned down, a splash of wine, vermouth or Madeira, and covered for 10 minutes over a thread of heat. A touch more butter, a squeeze of lemon juice, a soupcon of cream and a chopped herb to finish the thing. Done. Nicely cooked breast of chicken. Take a whole fowl, however, do the following to it, and really great cookery will unfold before your very eyes. Structures, juices, body and soul: a real thing. So simply done, so sodding easy, so worthwhile. So rare.

1 guinea fowl

75g softened butter

salt and pepper

juice of 1 small lemon

1/2 bottle of white wine

4 shallots, peeled and sliced

1 bay leaf

2-3 sprigs of thyme

150ml dry Madeira or medium sherry

200g fresh cepes, sliced, or 75g dried

400ml whipping cream

Pre-heat the oven to 400F/200C/gas mark 6. Smear 50g of the butter all over the bird and put into a roasting tin. Season, squeeze over the lemon juice and pour over about a third of the wine. Roast for 20 minutes. Turn down the heat to 350F/180C/gas mark 4 and cook for a further 45- 55 minutes or so, blasting from time to time. Remove from the oven and lift the bird from the tin onto a plate. Leave to rest until comfortably cool, enabling you to carve and joint the thing with the help of your hands. Leave the juices in the tin. Don't switch off the oven.

Divide the guinea fowl into two drumsticks, two thighs, and two breasts - the latter cut in half. (Note: some of the joints may still be a little pink; this is intentional as they are going to finish off cooking in the sauce.) Chop the carcass up with a heavy knife into small pieces and put back in the roasting tin with the rest of the wine, the shallots, bay, thyme and Madeira or sherry - plus any carving juices and soaking water if you have used dried cepes. Place the tin over a low light, directly onto the stove - you know, like making a gravy - and simmer until the liquid has turned syrupy and is clinging to the bones; about 30 minutes in all. Add all the cream and stir together. Bring back to a very gentle simmer and cook for five minutes.

While all that is going on, lightly butter a handsome oven-proof serving dish (oval white is best) and put in the joints of guinea fowl. Put into the oven to reheat. In a deep saucepan, briskly fry the cepes in the remaining 25g of butter with a little seasoning until pale golden. Remove from the heat. Set a fine sieve over the pan of cepes, pour the bones and cream into it and allow to drip through until it stops. Chuck out the debris and heat the cepes and cream together for a moment or two; check for seasoning. Pour this sauce over the joints of guinea fowl (watch out for the odd splutter here) and return to the oven for 10 minutes or so, when the sauce will be bubbling nicely around the edges and bits of fowl and fungi lightly burnished. Be daring and fling over some finely chopped parsley

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