Boletus edulis (also the closely related and equally delicious Boletus pinophilus and Boletus reticulatus); AKA Porcini (Italy & commonly UK too nowadays), Penny bun (UK traditionally, but generally cep from the French name Cepe is used), Steinpiltz (Germany), King bolete (US)
- Edibility – 5/5 – firm young ceps are one of the tastiest wild foods, and extremely versatile. Older specimens are best dried, after which their flavour intensifies.
- Distribution – 3/5 – quite common, though enigmatic, often with a short, intense season (3 weeks around the start of September in Scotland, usually later further south), and rapidly infested/decomposing.
- Identification – 4/5 – Key identification features are the light to chestnut brown smooth cap with a white rim and often a hazy pale ‘bloom’. Ensure the stipe is pale with a slightly raised white net pattern (reticulum) on the top third. As a member of the bolete group of mushrooms, ceps have pores under the cap rather than gills. These start off pale grey, becoming yellow and eventually olive green in past-their-best specimens. Flesh should be unchangingly white throughout apart from a narrow claret-coloured line just under the skin of the cap. Beginners may mistake inferior boletes, but unlikely to be a dangerous mistake. Ceps grow quickly and come in a wide and quirky range of shapes and sizes, and are often semi-decomposed before they reach maturity.
- Habitat – under beech, birch, scots pine, spruce; solitary or in clusters. Summer cep (Boletus reticulatus) grows only under deciduous trees, tends to appear earlier in the year, and is distinguished by its pronounced reticulum and darker cap. Boletus pinophilus (aka the pine bolete or pine cep) grows only under pine or spruce (including plantations). Both are every bit as tasty as boletus eludis and there is no need for fungi novices to worry too much about the subtle differences.
- Ecology – Ceps are Mycorrhizal fungi, working with their tree partners by helping in their uptake of water, phosphorus, nitrogen and zinc in return for energy from photosynthesis in the form of sugars. Carbon sequestration by fungi is often an overlooked area of climate science. Ceps, and boletus species in general, can be important food and habitat to insects, slugs, rodents and I’ve even heard of deer nibbling on them. This fascinating paper shows that individual mushroom species can have specific relationships with individual insect species. In the case of ceps, (mostly) flies of the pegomya genus, and (some) fungal gnats of Sciaridae family use them as food home & nursery for their larvae. It has been postulated that insects could play a role in the reproductive strategies of some fungi (beyond the obvious stinkhorns) and who knows what other useful interactions they have with complex fungal lifecycles? The evolution of veils/rings (annulus), webs (cortina) and slime on the underside of some mushroom species is a direct defence to deter insects before spores have matured. Some slow growing fungi such as chanterelles deter insects chemically (read the science of this here). That ceps have evolved no such strategy suggests to me that they they are happy partners with insects as well as trees! It seems likely that their very aromatic deliciousness has evolved to attract insects… And maybe humans too? Ceps can also play host to other fungi, notably the bolete eater fungus Hypomyces chrysospermus, and appear to have complex relationships with Fly agaric (amanita mascaria), the miller (Clitopilus prunulus) and peppery boletes (Chalciporus piperatus) – more on which below.
- Considered/Sustainable Harvesting – Given their extremely very fast growth/deterioration, the rapid attentions of so many insects, slugs and rodents, and their susceptibility to bolete eater fungus, its not surprising that millions of tons of ceps mature and rot in our forests every autumn. They are a true feast for nature. Their tendency to appear in large, localised gluts (like mast years for trees, only more localised and much less predictable) means harvesting a large “windfall” in one go can be a perfectly reasonable harvesting strategy. One good afternoon can yield a year’s supply of fungi, once dried or otherwise preserved and this must certainly have a lower overall impact than buying hothoused, packaged, transported cultivated mushrooms. Read more on this here. Carrying ceps pores-down in an open weave basket can only help in the wider transmission of spores through forest habitats, and spreading around the inevitable trimmings and wastage for such a perishable mushroom.
Suggested reading: An Introduction to Fungi Foraging
The cep is the king of edible mushrooms. No food, fungal or otherwise, comes near it for flavour and texture and when you find a firm young penny bun, or ‘bouchon’ cep as the French call them (after champagne corks), there is an irresistable fairytale beauty to them which is both beautiful and seductive.
In prime condition, ceps are one of the few wild mushrooms that I recommend eating raw, though if you have never tried them before, you should start with only a tiny amount. Fortunately a morsel is all you need to intoxicate your senses. The texture manages to be both crisp and succulent, while the flavour is one of chestnuts, musky woodland, even a hint of smokiness, but overall, just very mushroomy, with an almost parmesan-like umami mouth feel! The combination of deep intensity and aromatic lightness is fantastic.
If you think all this sounds unlikely and exaggerated, you really should try one. And don’t take my word: witness the French and (especially) Italian love affair with this mushroom. In season, market stalls will be bursting at the seams with fresh specimens and most rural Italian towns have their own fungi festival each autumn where prizes are awarded for biggest/prettiest/most like finder porcini. Even in winter and spring no self respecting grocer will be without a huge box of dried porcini.
Ceps lend themselves extremely well to drying and young firm specimens also freeze well, so they are available commercially in some form or other all year round and are a widely traded commodity. Although they lose their texture when dried, the process actually intensifies the flavour, and there is the added bonus of the water used for reconstituting them making excellent mushroom stock, though generally I prefer to just add the dried chunks to whatever stew, sauce, soup or gravy I am making and let them reconstitute in the pan. Dried ceps can also be ground into a fine stock powder that will turbo-charge any dish with rich, deep umami, or can be sprinkled on dishes in the same way as parmesan cheese.
You may well be thinking that this is some rare, exotic species, but they are in fact, not hard to find in Scotland and much of the UK. It is a sad reflection on our mycophobic culture that while they are cherished and celebrated in Europe, they are more likely to be ignored or kicked in the UK! Ceps are mycorrizal mushrooms, meaning that their parent mycelium (the underground network of microscopic fibres that permeate topsoil) happily unites in a mutually benificial relationships with tree roots. Ceps are what I think of as ‘loose’ mushrooms in so far as they can associate with a variety of tree species. Such infidelity means that you can regularly find them beneath beech, birch, pine and spruce trees from late August to November (see notes above for variations in species).
Tracking down such an esteemed mushroom can become a bit of an obsession, and experienced hunters will have all their senses finely attuned to a complex interplay of influences: heat in the ground (hot summers are good, but only after the weather breaks), rainfall (cloudburst in September), drops in temperature (a trigger for mushroom growth) and the appearance of other species that associate with ceps, are all signs to get your basket ready.
Fly agaric (amanita mascaria), the miller (Clitopilus prunulus) and peppery boletes (Chalciporus piperatus) are often clues to good hunting -grounds, especially under spruce trees. I find the relationship between ceps, spruce trees, the miller and the peppery bolete to be so reliable that I believe (though i’ve seen no scientific research to prove this) that the relationship is more than just shared habitat, but a complex interdependency. It has been known for some years that peppery boletes are parasitic on fly agaric mycelia, but I suspect there is more at play here. Who knows what complex battles, alliances and trades are going on beneath our feet!?
Fly agaric, peppery bolete and the miller – all good signs that there may ceps about under pine and spruce
I often curse the monoculture created by huge swathes of sitka spruce plantations, but as mushrooms don’t need light to flourish, I must confess to gathering some tremendous hauls of ceps beneath their boughs. In 1998 W Scotland enjoyed unbroken hot weather right up to September when heavy rain broke the drought, resulting in a fungi invasion. I harvested nearly 50kg of prime bouchon cep from a 500 square metre area of south-facing sitka spruce plantation – and I was only taking the best 10% of what was there. We ate a lot of risotto that winter…
Inexperienced foragers can have trouble distinguishing ceps from other less desirable pored mushrooms or boletes, often due to wishful thinking. This is not the worst of failings as only the red pored and rare devil’s bolete is dangerously poisonous, though several can be bitter and indigestible. It doesn’t help that ceps are very fast growing and their appearance changes rapidly during the few days it takes them to emerge, mature and begin to rot.
Which leads me to the bad news…
The one downside to gathering ceps, it is that insects value them every bit as much as we do. I try to be philosophical about this, remembering that they are food, home and nursery to a great many beasties with fine taste, and an important part of the woodland ecosystem. But when 90-95% of outwardly perfect specimens turn out to be infested (often even before they have fully emerged from the ground), it is hard not to become dispirited.
I usually expect a ratio of about 1 salvageable cep to 10 knackered ones. Fungal gnats (Sciaridae spp) in particular appreciate them even more than humans as food home & nursery for their larvae. We may curse them, but they do help to spread fungal spores, and who knows what other useful interactions they have with complex fungal lifecycles? In my experience, unless I get really lucky, less than 1 in 25 of the ceps I find contain no gnat larvae at all. This isn’t as bad as it sounds, as trimming, slicing and quickly/thoroughly drying means the larvae fall out, leaving perfectly delicious cep with the already superb flavour intensified. Anyone who feels squeamish about this should know that nearly all commercially sold dried porcini (including that which is used to flavour tinned mushroom soup!) will have been home to fungal gnat larvae at some point.
Fed up of infested, mushy ceps? Why not hunt slower growing, insect resistant mushrooms like hedgehog mushrooms, winter chanterelles or chanterelles instead? You can read more in depth about their ecology and durability here too.
Everything loves to eat ceps, including other fungi! In action in this picture (above) is bolete-eater fungus, Hypomyces chrysospermus, which starts off as a white mould on the pore surface of boletes, then quickly spreads throughout the whole mushroom, turning chrome yellow as it matures and rendering its host a pile of smelly moosh in a matter of hours! I get sent a lot of ID requests for festering carcasses of hypomyces victims. Bleurgh.
For more advanced gourmet mycophagists only…I’ve discovered that if you can catch your ceps at the very early stages of Hypomyces chrysospermus infection – characterised by the odd rusty spot, perhaps the very beginnings of mould/mushiness and a somewhat cheesy smell – this actually adds wonderful parmesan-like umami to the mushrooms once dried. Really good, but i’m only talking about the very early stages of infection here.
Ceps, dried or fresh, will lift any mushroom dish to a new level. Even a small amount added to other mushrooms can make quite a difference. Here are some of my favourite recipes – but be sure to try them raw in the forest first!
- Introduction to Fungi Foraging
- Cep with parmesan and wild herbs.
- Ultimate mushroom risotto
- More fungi recipes
- Edible Wild Fungi Guide
- In Season Now