Cepes look exactly like a primitive
drawing of a mushroom, with a wide white stalk and a fat brown
cap. They are found in forests throughout Europe and western
North America, growing alone or in clusters. The best kinds
are rumored to grow in chestnut forests, but they are most
easily found nestled beneath pine, spruce and fir trees. Cepes
first appear in the spring months, following sustained rainfall,
and continue into autumn. They grow rather large, with some
reaching the 2-pound mark.
Cepes for sale at a
Barcelona farmer’s market
flavor is a combination of meaty, nutty and earthy accents.
It’s delicate enough for use in soups and sauces but
can also hang with a hearty steak. This flavor, coupled with
its smooth and creamy texture, rocketed cepes to popularity
in the late 19th century. Until that time the French aristocracy
had turned up their noses at what they considered common fare,
but Alcide Bonton of Café Anglais reintroduced
posh Parisians to the woodland treasure. Since then this wild
mushroom has been a prized fixture on menus. In Italy foraging
is so competitive that a strict weekly weight limit is imposed.
Though cepes may come
from humble, earthy beginnings, Rising Star Chef David Bazirgan
knows firsthand that the powerful effect they have on diners
is heavenly. Bazirgan, who is chef at Baraka in San
Francisco, first used cepes while working under Barbara Lynch
at Boston’s Galleria Italiana, but he hadn’t
realized the full potential of the mushrooms until a transcendent
experience in Paris.
“I remember eating
them at Alain Ducasse, a canapé of cepes and
artichokes,” he says. “They were the best I’ve
are “into them” as well. He often features them
alone, as in dishes like Cepes “Rossini”, Raw
and Cooked Cepes with Shaved Parmesan Reggiano, Wild Arugula
and Aged Balsamic Vinegar, and Seared Maine Scallops with
Cepes, Fava Puree and Persillade. He also likes cooking them
with other wild mushroom varieties.
“I like the meatiness
of them, and how they can be treated like meat,” Bazirgan
says. “The texture and flavor are amazing, very full.
They hold up well. You can grill them or shave them when they
Bazirgan gets his cepes
from several suppliers, one of which is Wine Forest Wild Mushrooms.
The company, based in San Francisco, supplies mushrooms to
many of Napa’s and San Francisco’s top restaurants.
Costs range wildly during the season, anywhere from $9 to
$30 a pound.
If you are lucky enough
to find fresh cepes, look for mushrooms that are clean, firm
and unmarked. The head should still be securely attached to
the white stem. The mushrooms are best when the undersides
are white or yellow. Brown undersides are seen only on very
mature cepes, which should not be eaten, especially if the
stems have tiny, black holes, a telltale sign of worms. None
of their rich flavor is lost through drying. When choosing
dried cepes, make sure they are not brittle. They can be ground
up to flavor soups and sauces or rehydrated to use in most
Dried or fresh,
cepes offer a more concentrated flavor and greater cooking
versatility than many mushrooms. Bazirgan's recipes showcase
them in three distinct dishes, but there's no need to stop
there when using them in your own menu.