Mushrooms are not really food, but are relished to bully the stomach into further eating.
~~Seneca, Stoic Roman Statesman
Toadstools, devil’s work, fairies’ rings, mysterious, deadly, the deeply superstitious people of medieval Europe applied all these monikers to mushrooms. Fungi they are, botanically. Everyone’s culinary favorite, they are not. Their names invite punsters to unite: an equally apt title for this article could be the one food writer Raymond Sokolov chose years ago for his Natural History magazine column on mushrooms: “Morel Victory.” Or how about “Trifling Truffles?” Worst of all, “All Mushrooms are Edible, But Some Only Once.”
The Greeks believed that mushrooms gave warriors strength
The truth is that mushrooms in all their diversity – all told, over 50,000 species lurk out there in nature somewhere – have always been, and still are, enigmatic, beautiful, and, well, poisonous. Luring awe-struck humans like Sirens singing on the rocks.
Untamed by farmers, treasured by kings, cooked by Roman senators who called them the “food of the gods,” gobbled by pigs, and life-giving to starving peasants, mushrooms wear many caps. Literally.
Of those 50,000 or so species of fungi classified as mushrooms in the world today, humans eat only a little over 250 of them that are known for sure to be safe to ingest. These numbers will likely change as time goes by and people discover that other mushrooms are fine for eating For centuries, the specter of toxicity lurked over every unknown mushroom; thirty-two species remain lethally toxic to humans. It is this fear of poison and death that keep most people from venturing much further than the local supermarket for a steady supply of mushrooms, namely Agaricus bisporus.
Parisians first cultivated this white mushroom, sporting the apropos name of “white button,” in the limestone quarries and catacombs of Paris as early as 1650. Called the champignon de Paris in modern France, it is but one of eighty varieties of mushrooms available in French markets. Italians took to mushrooms, too, like the proverbial duck to water. But the French weren’t the first mushroom farmers. That honor goes to ants.
Yes, ANTS, not AUNTS. According to entomologist and biologists, ants deserve the acclaim as being the first living creatures to cultivate mushrooms. Graduate student Alexander Mikheyev and Dr. Ulrich Mueller, professor of integrative biology at the University of Texas at Austin, explain:
Fungus-farming ants are dependent on cultivating fungus gardens for food, and it has been widely believed that the fungi also evolved dependence on the ants for their dispersal and reproduction. When young ant queens establish new colonies, they take a start-up crop of fungi with them from their parental garden.
Mushrooms don’t lend themselves well to cultivation, because they are mycorrhizal and difficulties abound in inducing them to sporulate away from the presence of a natural host. Although the first human cultivators of mushrooms were the Japanese, who still farm such varieties as the enoki mushroom, they find many of their mushrooms in the wild. In fact, most of the world’s edible mushrooms grow only in the wild, including the Rolls Royce of mushrooms, the truffle.
Truffles, highly prized and priced, grow only in the wild, although some success in cultivating them has occurred in recent years. With the help of truffle-digging pigs – chercheuses – or truffle-sniffing dogs, people hunt these musky smelling lumps worth their weight in gold. Blessed with a finely developed sense of smell, muzzled pigs can sniff out truffles as deep as sixteen inches underground. Shaped like oranges and varying in size from pea- to orange-size, truffles continue to defy the commercial mind of man for the most part and remain easily uncultivable. Interestingly enough, truffles have a rather racy reputation. See what food historian Elizabeth Luard says about that, according to Christopher Hirst in an article, “Love Bites: The Naked Truth About Aphrodisiacs”: In her book, Truffles, Elizabeth Luard explains the appeal of the stratospherically priced fungi: ‘Not to put too fine a point on it, the truffle reeks of sex.’ A botanist at an Italian centre for trufficulture told her: ‘When women come to work here, we warn them they’re taking a risk.” The pheromones emitted by the truffle (‘heavy, musky, thrilling’) had an effect on Luard when she visited the laboratory. ‘I observe that the chief botanist – bearded, fortyish, handsome in a rugged kind of way – has a lovely smile. See? It works.’ ”
Other famous names in mushroom society – morel, cèpe, and chanterelle – also elude the mushroom farmer’s most enticing entreaties to grow on a large scale. Cèpes, or Boletus edulis, taste of raw chestnuts, according to some, while that master of bizarre literature, Tom Robbins once described chanterelles in the following terms:
A chanterelle “looks like a ruffled yellow trumpet, smells like apricots, has the consistency of chicken, and tastes like eggs scrambled in wood smoke and wine.”
Pretty heady stuff, from the sound of it.
Cooking these mysteries of nature is no mystery, fortunately. Due tot heir origins, mushrooms must be cleansed of sand and other bits of earth. Use a damp soft cloth and wipe them gently, one by one, like washing the face of your newborn son after nursing. Dry them well with paper towels before cooking. That’s basically all that’s necessary with fresh mushrooms. Dried mushrooms may require a preliminary soaking in hot water in order to render them soft and pliable enough to slice. As for their contribution to the taste of a dish, that depends in part upon what type of mushroom you opt to use. But the fact that mushrooms contain a natural flavor enhancer called glutamic acid ensures that most meat gravies, well, for one thing, will be enhanced by the addition of mushrooms. In Denmark, for example, adding mushrooms to the gravy signals honor for a special guest.
Look for all types of mushrooms in your market, be it a supermarket or a farmer’s market, and try new ones when you see them. If you wish to hunt for your own, be very, very careful and seek first the expertise of your local extension agent or a mycologist (mushroom expert) before embarking on your mushroom hunts and cooking your finds.
2 lbs. mushrooms of your choice
3 T. butter + 2 T. vegetable oil
Sea salt, freshly ground
Black pepper, freshly ground
2 large garlic loves, finely minced
4 T. dry Marsala or Madeira
1 cup heavy cream
2 t. fresh thyme, finely chopped
2 T. fresh parsley, finely chopped
Heat the butter and oil in a cast-iron skillet (or other heavy skillet) until almost smoking. Add the mushrooms and cook for about 5 minutes. DO NOT turn the mushrooms. Once they start to shrivel, turn them with a spatula. Season with salt and pepper to taste. When the mushrooms appear slightly caramelized on both sides, stir in the garlic and let cook for about 30 seconds. Add the Marsala or Madeira. Let cook down to about half the original volume. Lower the heat to low. Add the cream and the thyme. Cook until cream reduces by about half. Remove from heat, place in serving dish, and sprinkle with parsley. Serve at once, as a side dish or on top of bruschetta or pasta.
BOOKS ABOUT MUSHROOMS
The Complete Mushroom Book: Savory Recipes for Wild and Cultivated Varieties, by Antonio Carluccio
Morels, by Michael Kuo
Mushroom Cultivator: A Practical Guide to Growing Mushrooms at Home, by Paul Stamets and J. S. Chilton
The Mushroom Lover’s Mushroom Cookbook and Primer, by Amy Farges and Christopher Styler
Mushrooms Demystified: A Comprehensive Guide to the Fleshy Fungi, by David Arora
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© 2008 C. Bertelsen