Early autumn update: Time for ceps!
Depending on where you are from, some of you may know this mushroom as the penny bun (England), cep (France), porcini (little pig – Italy), steinpilze (stone mushroom – Germany), or even Karl-Johans-svamp (Sweden)… in fact there are dozens and dozens of recognised names for this species around Europe, which attests to its universal popularity throughout history. Between 20,000 and 100,000 tonnes are harvested globally for the commercial market per year, commanding high prices, yet this is not an uncommon mushroom.
In England, the cep or penny-bun can fruit in two or more waves if weather conditions are correct. This year in our local south-west woods we have already seen a light fruiting of ceps, many in the vicinity of oak trees, during early August. Now, as we head into the first week of September, there is plenty of rain and things are looking good for the next wave. We may well see a third wave as we head into October, by which time they will most likely be more prolific in association with beech woods. This is the typical pattern it seems with the cooler conditions triggering this later ‘wave of ceps’ a week or so earlier than elsewhere, further to the north. A combination of acid soils, underneath oak or beech with birch and holly both present, seems to produce the best results, although forestry spruce plantations and underneath pines can also be very very productive places to look and should not be overlooked.
Each year we pray for that vital autumn rain that will produce this magnificent second harvest across the region!
CAP: Yellowish brown to reddish brown… but predominantly brown, looking just like a bread bun on a short, swollen fat stick – hence the name ‘penny bun’. Often there is a paler margin around the edge.
SIZE: typically 10 to 30 cm across – that’s over a foot! Underneath there are no gills but instead (like all of the mushrooms in the bolete group) a sponge like layer, comprised of the tubes, which are only visible when you cut the mushroom in half, and the visible surface of ‘pores’. The pores of this mushroom are very small, they are round, very pale yellow when young – almost an ‘off-white’ colour, ageing later to a dingy olive brown.
FLESH: All parts of the cep’s flesh smell a little sweet. The flesh tastes sweet and nutty, young specimens can even be sliced and eaten raw, something that is very unusual for most wild mushrooms. Eaten in this way they are delicious with a restrained drizzle of lemon juice and a little salt. The cep’s white flesh does not change colour when cut or bruised. many other similar boletes do go through distinct colour changes, particularly to blue, but not this one!
STEM: The stem of the cep can be very very fat indeed, often with more usable flesh in it than the cap itself! The upper stem surface is covered in a very fine, pale/white, raised fishing-net pattern or ‘reticulum’. This white fishing reticulum is a distinctive feature.
If it doesn’t have it then it’s not a cep. If it isn’t at least white-ish then it’s not a cep. No reticulum, darker brown reticulum or reddish-brown reticulum all indicate other species, not all of them are edible, so beware!
FACT: The tasty cep contains lovastatin, so can help to lower cholesterol. It also contains mood stabilising compounds such as serotonin, melatonin and tryptamine that are found in the human body and could possibly help to alleviate depression. It is delicious and drys well, particularly the ‘sponge’ from underneath the cap, which makes a terrifically flavoursome and high in protein stock powder.
While we are all making the most of late summer, I wish you all a wonderful autumn filled with mushrooms and the joyful crunch of autumn leaves beneath your feet. I hope to see some of you in the forest this autumn!
Fred the Forager!