Boletus edulis as they are called are one of the world’s most sought after wild foods. They go by many names in fact — King Bolete, Porcini (Italian), Cep (French) and Steinpilz (German) to name a few. If you are lucky you live in an area where you can pick them on your own, which is by far one of the most rewarding hobbies you can have. I can’t wait for those late summer days on which I arm myself with sturdy boots, a small knife and large basket with a pretend picnic blanket to cover my bounty. The retail price for porcini is quite high and if you are lucky enough to spot some in your local store they are likely to be close in kilo price to truffles. In my opinion they taste more and better than truffles – and they are far easier to find and prepare yourself. Here’s my guide on how to identify and pick porcini.
There is a little list of things that I always bring when hunting for mushrooms. A wind and rain proof jacket, a mushroom book, a comfortable pair of wellies, a basket and a mushroom knife. Why would I chose these items? The answer is simple. They are the uniform of any mycophile. I love mushrooms and frankly I suffer from what all mushroom lovers are suffering from. The urge to show off my treasure filled basket at the end of a long picking spree while trying to elegantly ignore questions about where I found them.
For the sake of disclosure I will go as close as saying that those porcini on the photos were found in the New Forest, England. You may ask where exactly I found them but … oh look, phone snapshots of my puppy and the forest!
Before we get to the picking and the identifying there is something I would like to address. No matter how excited you are, never overpick. This not only means that you should never wipe an area completely clean but it also means to be respectful. Don’t pick the smallest or the very large mushrooms. They are very important and ensure that there will be mushrooms again the following year. While we are talking about picking: never pull them carelessly out of the ground. Cut them on the most bottom end so you don’t destroy their mycelium – which is the mushroom “roots”.
And most importantly, be respectful to your surroundings. Don’t break shrubbery or damage trees around the mushrooms and tread carefully. There are little friends sitting everywhere that would like to keep their home the way it is.
Location is everything when it comes to mushrooms. They will be hard to spot at first sight because of their colour so here are a few tricks.
- They grow on soil beneath trees, notably beech and birch. They like semi sunny places. Look for open spots in the woods where the sun can actually reach the ground like in this picture.
- If you see oddly bunched up leaves, carefully sweep them away. They might be pushed up by mushrooms.
- There is no need to look under or close to ferns, they like acid soil, porcini don’t. So if you see an area that looks like this there is no need to even bother looking.
- Look a bit ahead, they are easier to spot from the sides than from the top so you might actually miss them if you keep looking onto the ground that is surrounding your feet. Rather look a few meters ahead for the white, chubby stems. The first picture of this post shows how easy they are to spot from the side and how the cap perfectly blends into the surroundings.
- Once you found one, walk carefully. Where there is one there will be more. Don’t crush them by walking accidently over them.
Identifying a Porcini
The mushroom cap will look like a slightly greasy bun and the colour can range from yellow brown to a reddish brown. The caps can grow as large as 30cm (12inch) when mature and weigh up to 1kg (2lb) with a stem of about the same weight. When cut, the flesh should remain white.
The stem shows a very faint net pattern and is very solid and white. If in doubt, cut it. It should not change colour. When I first picked this mushroom with an expert at my side he told me to look for what he called “chicken wiring” on the stem – and if you look closely you will see that it has this webbing. This is a sure sign that you are holding a king bolete or porcini.
If you still have doubts then ask a friend who is familiar with picking mushrooms or take close pictures and find a forum where people can help you identify your bounty. Never eat something you are unsure about – mushroom picking is fun and rewarding, but it is not for someone who has not read up on any poisonous mushrooms that look similar to what they are picking.
When cleaning porcini keep in mind that it’s a wild food, it will come with lots of wild life. Most of it will find it’s way out of your basket while you are picking but be prepared. There will be soil, worms, little bugs and nibbled on mushroom parts. I tend to clean my mushrooms outside, in the garden. Gently brush the dirt off the cap, if there is any and then use your knife to scrape the dirt covered bits off the stalk.
Many cut it off but I find that slightly scraping the dirt off is enough and also saves a lot of mushroom that would end up in the compost otherwise. You can either use a vegetable peeler for this or like I do, a simple knife.
Depending on how many porcini you found you have you might want to preserve them. You can do this by either dehydrating them or blanching and freezing. I have some wonderful recipes for pasta with porcini that has been dried, it is almost better than the fresh version! I hope you enjoyed this guide on how to identify and pick porcini – please comment to let me know of your experiences foraging.
For other great tasting, easy to identify mushrooms to go foraging for, try my guide on how to identify and pick hedgehog mushroom or my guide for how to identify and pick oyster mushroom.