FOR my tea one day last week I made myself a plateful of delicious penny buns but, despite the misleading name, no baking of cut-price bread products was involved. What I ate, in fact, were some of my favourite wild mushrooms, fried in butter with a hint of fresh garlic and mixed herbs.

They weren’t any old mushrooms (that could have been very dangerous!) but two large fungus specimens whose caps were almost perfectly hemispherical and the colour of baked bread crust – hence the name.

These mushrooms are prized in the more gastronomically adventurous countries of the continent where they are known as ceps in France and porcini in Italy. They command high prices in “epiceries vert” or farmers market stalls, but I got mine for free on a walk through Levisham Woods.

I was fortunate on two counts; first I was in the woods about a week after a day of very heavy rain, which is supposed to be the ideal time for penny buns to appear above ground and, second, I knew exactly what I was picking.

Extremely poisonous wild mushrooms do grow in the woods of Ryedale so correct identification when foraging is very important, but penny buns are pretty unmistakable.

They are members of the Boletus family, all of which have hundreds of pores underneath their caps instead of the traditional mushroom gills and most of the family are edible and tasty.

One or two boletes are poisonous, notably Boletus satanus (the Devil’s boletus) and a good beginner’s rule is to reject any specimens whose flesh quickly turns blue on cutting and exposing to air.

Like most other woodland fungi, boletes have a symbiotic relationship underground with the roots of certain trees where fungal fibres invade the plant’s tiny rootlets to form a structure called a mycorrhiza.

This incredible “organ” behaves a bit like a mammalian placenta by allowing complex chemicals to pass from one organism in the partnership to the other - sugars made by the tree pass to the fungus and minerals extracted from the soil by the fungus move in the other direction.

The penny bun (Boletus edulis) seems to prefer pine tree roots whereas the equally delicious orange birch bolete and brown birch bolete always grow in association with silver birch trees, as you would expect.

On the subject of names, my favourite belongs to another bolete associated with pine trees whose official English name is slippery jack because the top of its cap is particularly slimy. Someone (a witty forager I suspect) has come up with the alternative name of “sticky bun” in keeping with the bakery theme.

Humans are not the only animals to appreciate Boletus mushrooms as food; on my collecting trip in Levisham Woods I saw a grey squirrel scamper up a tree trunk carrying a fair-sized “bun” in its mouth. Also, slugs will often gnaw away at the caps, leaving distinctive indented scars, and females of a type of fly called a fungus gnat lay their eggs in the pores of the mushroom. When hatched, the maggots then eat upwards through the flesh, eventually emerging through the top to fly away as adults.

No one would really want to eat a mushroom filled with maggots but, as one mushroom foraging colleague of mine said, “The maggots were born in the mushroom, have only ever eaten mushroom and probably taste of mushroom themselves so I’m happy to eat a few along with my mushroom”.

Happy foraging everyone.