Mushrooms and truffles

Mushrooms and truffles

By
Antonio Carluccio
Contains
10 recipes
Published by
Quadrille Publishing
ISBN
9781849497527
Photographer
Laura Edwards

I have already written two books on my favourite subject – my beloved fungi, or edible mushrooms and truffles – and hope that here, on a much smaller canvas, I will be able to introduce you to at least some ideas about such a vast field. For, you may be surprised to learn, there are at least some 200,000 different fungi, and mycologists – experts in the subject – are still discovering new varieties every year. The mycological world is absolutely enormous.

Fungi are not like other plants in that they do not ‘feed’ from the sun; they contain no chlorophyll, the green pigments that synthesize carbon compounds from the sun’s energy. Instead fungi collect their nutrients entirely from living organisms, or from decaying or dead organic matter. In fact, without them we could not properly exist, for it is the task of many fungi to bring back to nature what was given by nature. They perform a vital role in breaking down dead matter, assisting in that matter’s decomposition, and as a result of this valuable cleaning-up operation, fungi make further nourishment for the soil, creating a habitat for new generations of fungi and other plants. Other fungi affect our food: wines and beers are made through the interaction of fungi and sugar; breads rise because of the fungus that is yeast; and milk transforms into yoghurt because of fungal activity. There are also, of course, fungi whose role is less pleasant. Some fungi attack living trees or plants, killing them: Dutch elm disease, for instance, is caused by a microscopic fungus carried by certain beetles.

What we are interested in here, though, are the fungi which have fruiting bodies, the part which we can collect or buy, cook and eat. Most of you will be buying your mushrooms from shops and supermarkets, and the number of types available is constantly growing. Science and industry have managed to isolate the spores (seeds) of a few wild varieties, and now successfully cultivate them in large quantities. Some of you may, like me, be lucky enough to enjoy the ‘quiet hunt’, to be able to go into woods throughout Europe – and indeed further afield – and seek out wild fungi in their natural and, often, secret habitats. Looking for wild fungi is one of my greatest pleasures – followed closely by eating fungi! Not surprisingly, for me the flavour of the wild is always superior to the cultivated.

Never peel mushrooms, whether wild or cultivated. It is an old-fashioned way to treat them, and anyway it is the skin that contains the taste. If you find them a little dirty, just brush them with a soft brush. If you can avoid it, don’t wash mushrooms either, as they absorb an enormous quantity of water, rendering them soggy and tasteless. A wipe with a damp cloth is all that is probably needed.

Cultivated mushrooms

Obviously all mushrooms were once available only from the wild, but it was in the Far East that a few were cultivated, possibly as early as 600 AD. Those first cultivated mushrooms were varieties you can still find mostly in the Far East today: among them Auricularia polytricha (wood ear), Flammulina velutipes (enoki) and Lentinula edodes (shiitake). Wood ears grow in cultivation on rotting wood; they are usually dried, but are easy to rehydrate. The Chinese use them a lot, for food and medicine. Enoki are tiny white mushrooms, grown and bought in clumps; they are so pretty, I like to use them raw, in salads and in soups, for both flavour and decoration. Shiitake are perhaps the most familiar of the ‘exotic’ mushrooms from the East; they are similar in shape and look like the cep or pennybun, but taste nothing like them. They are highly valued in Japan and China, and can be found fresh or dried.

Other Eastern cultivated mushrooms which are always available include the oyster (pleuroto, gelone, fungo ostrica) mushroom. There are four types of Pleurotus, which means mushrooms that grow ‘sideways’. P. ostreatus (referring to the oyster-shaped cap) is the most familiar (it was cultivated in Germany during World War I as a subsistence food). In the wild the mushrooms grow on stumps of rotting trees, and come in various colours such as yellow and even pink; in cultivation they are grown in special composts. The latest addition to the Pleurotus family is the imperial or king oyster (P. eryngii), which is derived from the wild cardoncello mushroom growing in Puglia in Italy. This mushroom grows quite fleshy and large, and it is possible to cut it into slices: I prefer it dipped in flour, egg and breadcrumbs and fried. It can also be used in vegetable dishes like lasagna or timbales.

The Japanese and Chinese use a great deal of the above (and other) mushrooms in their cuisine, and have developed a very large industry to produce them. The finest mushroom of all for the Japanese, though, certainly as regards texture, is the matsutake (Tricholoma matsutake). This mushroom grows rather like a truffle, in symbiosis with the roots of certain trees, rather than feeding off dead or decaying matter. It is very difficult to cultivate, as a result, which means the mushroom is not readily available, thus it can command prices of around £500– £800 per kilogram!

These Eastern specimens above are the more exotic varieties of cultivated mushroom, but we must not forget the more common and familiar western varieties. Agaricus bisporus is a cultivated relation of the wild field mushroom (A. campestris), and it has taken over the world! It has been cultivated from around the 1600s in Europe, most notably in caves near Bath in England, and in caves near Paris in France. So many were produced in Paris that small mushrooms are still to this day called champignons de Paris. There are various sizes. The smallest is the button mushroom or champignon, with a small white cap (when the cap is brown, it is known as Paris brown); cap mushrooms are slightly larger (and if brown on top are known as chestnut mushrooms); flat or open mushrooms have a totally developed, opened-out cap with visible brown gills. These mushrooms are very versatile, and are mostly used either fried in breadcrumbs, or steamed or grilled, or chopped and used for sauces. The Portobello mushroom, which has an open wide cap, is an invention of the trade because it is nothing other than A. bisporus which has been allowed to mature and grow quite large. These are usually grilled or stuffed and fried or baked.

Wild mushrooms

The first thing to say about wild mushrooms is that you must always be sure of what you are looking for and picking. If you are not a mycologist yourself, the surest safeguard – for many mushrooms are deadly poisonous – is to consult a professional, or to go on a fungus foray led by a professional. And always be careful not to deplete a mushroom site: cut the mushrooms carefully, rather than pulling them out of the ground, leaving the mycelium (the underground network which is the basis of fruiting bodies) as intact as possible.

The field mushroom (Agaricus campestris, or prataiolo in Italian), to which our common or garden button mushrooms are related, used to be much more available. With the loss of horse-drawn carriages and carts, though, fields lack the horse manure that these mushrooms like. But they are still to be found, as is their close relative, the horse mushroom (A. arvensis). You won’t be able to buy these, but you can, in special grocers, find ceps (Boletus edulis), chanterelles (Cantherellus cibarius) and morels (Morchella elata), collected wild in their seasons, because these three mushrooms cannot be cultivated.

The cep is my favourite wild mushroom, known to the Italians as porcino (little pig), and to the British as pennybun (the cap looks like a round bun with a shiny, sugarbaked top). The flavour is wonderful and I use them in a number of ways: raw in thin slices with a simple dressing, fried, baked, preserved, and they can be successfully dried. These dried funghi porcini are invaluable: after softening in hot water and chopping them, I use them to intensify the flavour of a dish using ordinary fresh mushrooms – such as a mushroom risotto or tagliatelle con funghi. The water should be used too, as it is full of flavour. (The leading stock-cube company in Italy, Star, has developed a stock cube with porcini, which gives a good taste of the wild mushroom. These are available internationally now.)

The chanterelle (cantarello) grows widely throughout Europe, and in North America. When I ran a restaurant, I used to get mine from Scotland. These are perhaps the prettiest mushrooms, like bright yellow frilled trumpets, and they often smell of apricots. Known to the French as both chanterelles and girolles, their colour, flavour and texture are wonderful in many dishes. Morels (spugnola, gialla, elata) are the first mushrooms to appear each year, in springtime (rather than in autumn). They are unusual to look at, with a sponge-like conical (rather than round) cap, and grow throughout Europe, in America and in northern Asia. I once bought 120 kilograms of dried morels in Nepal! They can be cooked fresh, obviously, but are very successfully dried, and reconstitute well.

Three other wild mushrooms which you might encounter, and which are delicious to eat, are Caesar’s mushroom (Amanita caesarea, or ovolo in Italian), honey fungus (Armillaria mellea, or chiodino, famigliola buona), and horn of plenty (Craterellus cornucopioides, or trombetta dei morti, craterello). I give recipes for their usage, and you may be lucky enough to find them, but if not, substitute any mushroom you have to hand.

Truffles

Truffles, the kings of the fungi world, have fruiting bodies that develop only underground, and only in association with certain trees. This is why they are very difficult – or impossible – to cultivate, which dictates their rarity and thus their high price! Hundreds of truffle-like tubers grow around the world – from China to California – but only three possess the flavour and aroma that have ensured their primacy in the fungi world.

The best of all truffles is the white truffle (Tuber magnatum, or tartufo bianco in Italian) which grows only in Italy. Most come from Piedmont, around the town of Alba – thus the sobriquet, ‘Alba truffle’. Less perfumed white truffles are found elsewhere in Italy, even as far south as Calabria. The white truffle looks like a potato, usually around 50g in weight (although it can be much bigger), and it grows in symbiosis with oak, hazel, poplar and beech trees. The flesh is solid, brittle and highly perfumed. The Italians use white truffles very thinly sliced or grated as a scent on a dish of food – on pasta, for instance, or a plate of superb raw beef. I sometimes store them in the fridge with eggs, and the eggs become imbued with their scent, making wonderful scrambled eggs! White truffles can only be found by chance (today by dogs, formerly by female pigs), as they cannot be cultivated. This is why they are the most sought-after treasure, achieving the price of £3,000–£4,000 per kilogram!

The French love their black Périgord truffle (Tuber melanosporum, or tartufo nero or tartufo invernale), and because it is the only truffle to appear in France, believe it is the best. It grows in the Périgord, obviously, but is also found in Provence, and in Italy too, in Umbria and Norcia (in the Marches), and elsewhere throughout the world. It grows in symbiosis with oak trees. The subterranean fruit body is black, with a rough skin, and the insides are wonderfully perfumed. The French use their truffles slightly differently, often storing them in a jar of oil or duck fat, which then becomes wonderfully fragranced. They sliver them as well with potato and egg dishes, and in salads. Slivers of truffle are wonderful under the skin of a roast chicken or turkey.

T. melanosporum can be cultivated, and in many places the roots of young oaks have been treated with truffle spores before planting. In New Zealand, for instance, they successfully cultivate black truffles in former grape-vine plantations. I was the patron of a truffle festival in Australia, where a friend of mine, Peter Marshall, planted a few hundred hazel trees some fifteen years ago, the roots of which were impregnated with the spores of T. melanosporum. He now enjoys a very satisfactory production of truffles in Eastern Australia. It was fantastic to watch the two trained dogs very quickly locating where truffles were growing, just a few centimetres beneath the earth. The dogs were happy to receive a piece of sausage as a reward, while Peter and his family were over the moon collecting kilos and kilos of what is commonly called the ‘Black Diamond’.

The summer truffle (T. aestivum, or scorzone) can be found in many places, including England. It grows in symbiosis with a number of trees, usually oak, and is warty in appearance, rather like the black truffle. Its perfume is much more delicate.

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