Features on StarChefs.com
The King of Mushrooms

by Kelly Snowden

Their Latin name, boletus edulis, means “superior mushroom,” but cepes have inspired many other monikers, including poor man’s steak and king of mushrooms. Their most common name is porcini, which is what most people know them as. Cepes are a rarity of the produce aisle, so hearty and flavorful that they can trick stomachs and palates into sirloin-style satisfaction.
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Chef David Bazirgan of Baraka-San Francisco, CA

Cepes "Rossini"

Raw and Cooked Cepes with Shaved Parmesan Reggiano, Wild Arugula and Aged Balsamic Vinegar

Seared Maine Scallops with Cepes, Fava Puree and Persillade

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 on StarChefs.com

Cepes for sale at a
Barcelona farmer’s market

Cepes’ distinct 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 ever had.”

Bazirgan’s diners 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 are firm.”

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 recipes.

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.

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   Published: May 2006