When I first started working with my good friend and mentor Gennaro Contaldo, many years ago at the Neal Street Restaurant, I used to see him coming into the kitchen carrying huge baskets of weird and wonderful mushrooms. All the chefs would gather round, pick them up, the ones they knew – and ask all sorts of questions about the ones they didn’t.
Gennaro knew all their Latin names and loads of incredible information and stories about each one – it was amazing. So I made it an ambition of mine to tag along on one of his mushroom hunts, and eventually, early one October morning, he took me to Epping Forest.
WHERE TO FIND MUSHROOMS
I really didn’t know what to expect, but I was certainly surprised when instead of looking down at the ground Gennaro started looking up at the trees. I asked him why, and he explained to me that the first thing you look for when mushrooming is the age and type of the trees in the forest – and it must be a forest, as young woods don’t always have the old ground in them that mushrooms like to grow on.
The ground must be quite dry as, much like us, mushrooms need rain but don’t like to be in the wet all the time. Only when we found the right spot, where the pine trees merged with the beech and oaks, did we start to look properly for mushrooms, rummaging round the bottoms of trees and peering under leaves and ferns.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
It’s hard to see them at first, but after you find your first one your eye gets tuned into the kind of shapes and colours it’s looking for, and you suddenly start to see them: porcini hiding like fat little piglets in among the leaves and pine needles; glamorous yellow girolles that love to grow on luxury beds of green velvety moss; honey fungus that grows in sticky clumps all over logs and dead trees; shiny slippery jacks; saffron milk-caps that look like little orange doughnuts; creamy hedgehog mushrooms with all their tiny spines underneath; chunky beefsteak mushrooms that grow on the sides of trees like fat, juicy sirloins and; if you’re really lucky, the incredible ‘chicken of the woods’, which is the colour of a corn-fed chicken and smells like a Sunday roast.
THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX…
I’ve been on countless mushrooming trips with Gennaro since then, and each one is more amazing than the last. He’s constantly scanning the horizon for the right kinds of trees or likely-looking forests, and all the time we’re talking in the car he’s checking the sides of the road for the occasional treat. He once pulled over at the side of the A507 and made me get up on his shoulders with a bread knife taped to a broom handle, to cut off a chicken of the woods 15ft up a chestnut tree.
When Gennaro was growing up in Italy, his family went on mushroom-picking outings, and he learned to pick the few edible specimens that grew in the hills above the Amalfi coast. When he came to England to work, he couldn’t believe the variety of mushrooms we had in our forests, and set about learning a bit more about them.
Fifteen years of study have made him an expert in all the kinds of edible mushrooms in England and also the ones to be avoided. Our climate is perfect for mushrooms and the majority of people don’t know anything about them, so they really are there for the picking.
BE VERY CAREFUL
As everyone knows, some mushrooms are not good for eating and a few can kill you stone dead if you even nibble them, so if you are picking them to eat, it’s essential that you go with an experienced mycologist – that’s a mushroom expert to you and me. There are lots of organised mushrooming groups around the country where you can go and forage with an expert to check anything you think might be worth picking.
THREE GORGEOUS MUSHROOM RECIPES:
Pack in the flavour with this super-simple, totally delicious soup recipe. It’s the perfect autumnal lunch.
Soft roast mushrooms, garlic, tarragon and hollandaise, tumbled on top of a slice of sourdough. Gorgeous!
An incredible version of the old classic we’ve all tried at some point – these baked beauties are topped with a golden Parmesan crust.
For more delicious ideas of what to make with mushrooms, check out the collection of recipes here.