My brother was more or less the age my son is now – six – when my friend and I fed him mushroom soup. As eight-year-old foragers, we had found a cluster of mushrooms under a tree in the wild untended bit at the bottom of the garden. Seeing no red cap or alarming spots, we deemed them edible and picked them. We had also found a handful of blackberries and something suitably herby, so we put all three in warm water, stirred, then fed our soup to Ben behind the sofa. Ben went yellow and cried for mum, who asked us calmly what we had done while her eyes gave away her pure and absolute panic.
It turned out they were only mildly nauseating, and Ben was fine. The adults, though, were not. So traumatised were they that they didn’t even shout. Instead, we were given the most earnest talking to. Did we know how serious this was? Had we any idea what could have happened? I did. Despite our sibling rivalry, I did not want to murder my younger brother; a crime sure to make the front of the local paper. We were made to promise we would never pick mushrooms again. As yet, I haven’t.
I know a man who does, though. At this time of year, as autumn seeps slowly into the air and I celebrate my birthday, I hope to get a call from a friend telling me her dad has been on one of his quiet and determined hunts in the chestnut woods just outside Rome. The Boletus edulis, or porcini, arrive wrapped in a cloth, their swollen stems like fat babies’ legs, their caps the colour of ruddy chestnuts. The flesh is quite unique – thick and nutty with a rich, almost custard-like quality about it, which is why they are so good when fried or grilled. Porcini dry beautifully, and make superb wild gifts preserved and stored in packets ready to be soaked back to life, and give flavour and moral support to meals or cultivated mushrooms.
Despite the sofa incident, I am very fond of mushroom soup, especially the Jane Grigson/Elizabeth David recipe, also mushroom risotto and anchovy, and mushroom eggs. For all these recipes, I use cultivated mushrooms, bolstering with wild when I can, either fresh or from a packet. A favourite way to prepare mushrooms, though, both wild and tame, is to fry them in a mixture of olive oil and butter, along with garlic and plenty of finely chopped herbs. It is a straightforward way, but one that seems to bring out the flavour and texture of mushrooms most beautifully. It is a dish for the whole year, but autumn is when it seems most appropriate, as cooking slows down, and the olive oil rich dishes of the summer demand a little butter. Or in this case, a lot of butter! Mushrooms take and give: soaking up fat, but then giving back in the form of intensely flavoured gravy, which you can reduce. Mushrooms prepared this way are delicious on toast, but also stirred through pasta for an extremely satisfying and tasty supper dish.
The ideal pasta for these mushrooms is pappardelle – wide ribbons of fresh egg pasta that cook into an almost fabric-like silkiness and so wrap themselves around pieces of mushroom while collecting buttery sauce and flecks of herbs. Alternatively, tagliatelle works well, too. In either case, homemade – I use 100g of flour and one egg per person – or dried pasta both work.
If you are lucky enough to know how to forage, collect as many edible varieties as you can. Alternatively, buy a selection of cultivated mushrooms – button, chestnut, oyster – and bolster with a packet of dried porcini. In their recipe for mushroom pasta, Oretta Zanini De Vita and Maureen B Fant note the herbs should remind you of being lost in the woods, and suggest a mixture of parsley, thyme and oregano, which do indeed seem like somewhere wild and bosky rising up out of the pan. They also describe mushrooming in autumn in Italy, the quiet clamber on inhospitable slopes, the torn skin and clothing that arise from getting the best specimens. I like these words around a recipe, they remind me of my own childhood adventure – however misguided – and make me wonder if this is the year I might try mushroom hunting again.
Pasta with mushrooms and herbs
25g dried porcini
800g mushrooms, mixed varieties, wild or cultivated
4 tbsp olive oil
2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
Salt and black pepper
Parsley, oregano and thyme, finely chopped
450g dried long pasta (ideally pappardelle or tagliatelle)
1 Soak the porcini in warm water for 30 minutes, then drain, reserving the liquid. Clean the other mushrooms by brushing away any mud and then wiping the cap and stem with a damp cloth. Cut all the cleaned mushrooms into slices; not too thin. Put a large pan of well-salted water on to boil in preparation for cooking the pasta.
2 In a large frying pan, heat the oil and butter. Once the butter is foaming gently, add the garlic and fry for a few minutes. Add the porcini and cook for another minute to combine the flavours. Add the fresh mushrooms. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5–6 minutes, or until the mushrooms have released their water and are tender and glistening. Add a little of the porcini liquid and let it all bubble for another minute to reduce, then sprinkle with the herbs.
3 Meanwhile, cook the pasta until al dente. Drain and toss with the mushrooms. Divide between bowls and serve, passing around grated cheese for those who want it.
- Rachel Roddy is a food writer based in Rome and won the Guild of Food Writers food writer and cookery writer awards for this column. Her new book, Two Kitchens(Headline Home) is out now; @racheleats