PRETTY PENNY Edible Boletus edulis mushrooms – commonly known as penny buns, porcinis, king boletes or ceps – are delicious, but watch out for poisonous lookalikes.
Country Sights and Sounds
Early August and riches abound as late summer provides a banquet with a place at the table for all. Well, for most. Some find themselves only on the menu.
The unmistakeable calling of juvenile hawks drew me deep into the trees, where I found a trio of them newly fledged and presently unable to hunt for themselves. Their hungry cries, sounding half-cat and half-bird, reminded me of the first time I heard them half a century ago and had been sure there were kittens high up in the trees.
I watched these three, and followed as far as the tall pines where I think I see their nest. There it is, high up where the trunk divides into two large branches. Crows probably built it last year and likely brought three or four young greybacks into the world. Sparrowhawks prefer not to trouble with building their own home, although they will do if no other opportunity presents itself.
With the young hawks centering their short, jinking flights around that tree I could see how adept they already were. It won’t be long before the local songbird population are imperiled. There will be more killing than eating.
The woods are peaceful for the present, brimming with the happy summer thrum of the insect tribe. Speckled wood butterflies abound in every sunlit glade, contesting sun-warmed leaf-seats with seeming boundless energy. Beyond the trees, shrubby pasture shows me wood white, peacock, ringlet and more.
I have in mind to search for purple hairstreak, perhaps on a cooler day when the horseflies are less active. I’ve not seen this particular butterfly before; it is rare in this country and occurs only in established oak woods. Chris and Lynda Huxley discovered a colony of these pretty insects at Derrinrush where mature oaks are gradually falling away, one by one.
Another fallen oak gave me something I’ve been hoping to find for ten years and more. Beefsteak fungus, dripping red in its prime, a full pound of it, succulent and firm, perfect in colour and construction and one of the safest of our edible mushrooms, for no other looks so much like a slab of meat. It is also called ox-tongue, for obvious reasons.
My attention was taken by the first of our summer boletes. Warm ground, warm rain, what more could a mushroom enthusiast want? This first flush were past their best, having already been discovered by various insects. I brought a few home and found all but two of them infested with insect larvae. I suppose you could rightly call them maggots.
I have a friend who disregards those little wrigglers altogether. They are, he states, nothing more than extra protein, and once fried they no longer move. ‘You wouldn’t even know they are there,’ says he, shaking his head in bewilderment as I refuse breakfast yet again.
The boletus family includes the best and the worst of all wild mushrooms. Who hasn’t heard of the cep, or the penny bun? Find a few of these delicious half-globes and you’ll be hooked.
With many foreign holiday destinations off limits, staycation walks and foraging are becoming ever more popular. There are bound to be casualties.
In among the penny buns and their edible cousins will be the occasional less-edible or poisonous specimen. The appropriately named bitter bolete is sure to spoil your supper. Improperly cooked, Boletus erythropus has the potential to spoil your evening, and the rather unpleasant Devil’s bolete, should you accidentally include one of these lookalikes in your soup, will certainly put you off mushroom hunting for a week or two, or even for the rest of a considerably shortened life.
Remember the old adage: There are old mushroom hunters and there are bold mushroom hunters, but there are no old, bold mushroom hunters. If in doubt, throw it out.
At present we have a great deal of other things with which to occupy our minds, and edible fungi are just a bonus. Soon enough we shall be searching in earnest; for now the woods and fields are filled with interesting creatures of all sorts.
An inventive friend discovered the perfect weapon against horseflies, deer flies, clegs and the like. Not only does a smartly wielded tennis racket give them little chance of escape, it is, he assures me, fine sport and great exercise. To be sure, biting insects are a painful nuisance, but don’t let them put you off, nor let the best of summer go to waste.
Michael Kingdon formerly wrote these columns under the pseudonym John Shelley. A naturalist and keen fisherman, he lives close to the shores of Lough Carra.