I do like this time of year when the mushrooms are popping up all over the place. Ireland being a wet, boggy and woody country is perfect for pushing up these wonders of nature and sadly most go unharvested as the desire or knowledge is not there to seek them out. They were once called toadstools, are also known now as just fungi and the word mushroom itself comes from one French variety called a mousseron.
Mushrooms are essentially the underground communication network of the earth, nature’s very own internet using spores from their gills to spread and grow. They are not even a vegetable but in a class of their own with moulds and yeasts. We only see the end product with ninety nine per cent or more still underground some taking over whole fields and forests. I love a good mushroom hunt day out.
They have been eaten since the dawn of time and it has always been a game of culinary roulette as to which ones will kill you and which will nourish. There are millions of varieties globally of course, all the way from your plain supermarket buttons for a euro a punnet right up to the treasured white and black truffles at ten a grand a kilo. The commercially grown ones never taste as good as the wild as the magic of the soil is just not capable of being replicated indoors in some poly tunnel.
I did not really get a serious interest in them until living in France where chemist shops in autumn had posters of the bad ones not to pick and the good ones were making major contributions to menus, at any time of year actually. Then there is the added risk that some common safe ones have deadly lookalike cousins. Many a victim in olden times met their maker from being fed some baddies and sometimes on purpose too. One bugle shaped black mushroom species is called Trompette de la Mort, the trumpet of death, but it’s actually perfectly edible. Some will be hallucinogenic so be careful of these innocent looking tricky specimens.
So if you go mushroom hunting make sure you do your homework. Stick to farmers markets and legit shops and suppliers I suggest. There are some decent books out there and plenty of info online. They have been cultivated safely though in Europe for five hundred years and been a very versatile and nutritious ingredient in most cuisines. France and Russia would be the big heads in the whole mushroom story.
Cooking wise it is important not to wash them first of all, a light brushing is much better. They will just absorb water and both flavour and cooking will then be diminished. Also peeling them is futile, there is absolutely no need and all you get is less to eat. If there are any specks left on them after brushing they will die instantly with heat. The most flavoursome the mushroom the less seasoning and other ingredients they need.
Of course they take well to garlic and onions, herbs, spices, lemon, wines and spirits, most meats, fish and other vegetables, so they really are a chef’s best friend. They do not want overcooking either, it is important to try and maintain a bit of the meaty texture, sliced and fried gently in a little oil and real butter is all you have to do.Try to season as little as possible.
My favourites apart from the truffles would be ceps, morels and chanterelles. The depth of flavours is outstanding in these varieties. When you have a nice stuffing or rich sauce with sliced up wild mushrooms any dish is elevated to a new level of deliciousness. You will not get a better earthy taste. The pungent aroma from truffles is a highlight of food and cooking. Mushrooms are a fifteen billion dollar global industry so that is not to be sniffed at.
They are edible raw as well, especially in salads. You will get maximum goodness from them then. There is even mushroom tea. They help our immunity, brain, heart and gut health along with their fibre and multi vitamins, especially D and all with very little calories. So if you have not got into mushrooms yet, it is never too late. A nice creamy hearty soup is a good way to start or in a filling omelette and then you will not have much room for anything else!