Porcini (Boletus edulis) mushroom

There are few mushrooms around the world as prized as the cèpe or porcini (Boletus edulis). The large brown dome-shaped cap, with pores underneath and a thick stem, promises a delectable meal. The flavour is nutty and woody, a very pleasant and interesting umami flavour profile. There are a number of reasons why Boletus mushrooms are so sought after. Not only is their flavour excellent – a large specimen can feed a few people – but the dried slices preserve beautifully. The word porcini means “piglets ” in Italian, and some Italian mushroom hunters claim that when one porcino is plucked from the ground, the end of the stem resembles a curly pig’s tail. Other cultures likened the sight of a fresh porcini mushroom to bread, hence the British name of pennybun. Boletus is derived from Latin for “lump” – but there are many other non-true Boletus mushrooms that are sometimes colloquially referred to as boletes. As a result of non-native tree introduction in South Africa, these mycorrhizal fungi have found their way into our pine plantations – to the extent of it being the only wild mushroom in South Africa that is harvested on a commercial scale during season.

Fresh porcini (Boletus edulis). © Beverley Klein

When finding Boletus in South Africa, the most notable features to look out for include the tan-brown, domed cap with white-to-yellow-to-olive “spongey” pores underneath –  this area under the cap of the mushroom is where spores are released and sent to travel the airwaves. When young, the pores are creamy-white in colour, turning mustard-yellow with age and then eventually olive green. Scent can be a useful way to determine a lock on identification with a Boletus. Although differing slightly from person to person, these species generally give off a pleasant, nutty aroma especially when young.

Boletus do not change colour when their flesh is bruised or cut. Some of the other “boletes” found in South Africa will bruise or stain blue when sliced and handled, such as the Bay bolete (Imleria badia). In northern parts of the world, there are toxic boletes that stain red. The true Boletus found in South Africa include B. edulis, B. reticulatus and B. aereus. These species can be associated with different varieties of pine such as Monterey pine (P. radiata) and Cluster pine (P. pinaster), as well as with oak trees like English oak (Q. robur), Pin oak (Q. palustris), Cork oak (Q. suber) and Water oak (Q. nigra). Learning the right tree is as important as learning the mushroom associated with it.