Thank God for Mushrooms
Fungi. Girolles, morels and ceps. Shiitake, black truffles and porcini. Oyster mushrooms, buttons and portobellos, and – of course – sinusitis, athlete’s foot and ringworm.
Neither plant nor animal, fungi are a curious lifeform. Despite the common occurrence of many seemingly innocuous but deadly poisonous varieties, mushrooms and their ilk have been used by humans as food for at least 2,500 years, and perhaps many millennia before that. Like many things we take for granted in modern society, edible mushrooms were first documented by the Chinese, who valued their supposed medicinal qualities as well as their flavour.
Naturally, of course, no history of fungus consumption, no matter how concise, would be complete without an honourable mention to the magic, hallucinogenic variety Psilocybe. These naughty little numbers date back to South American religious rituals, perhaps as early as 7,000 BC. Known as ‘teōnanācatl’ (or ‘divine mushroom’) to the Aztec and Mazatec people, magic mushrooms were served at the coronation of new rulers and at spiritual ceremonies. A deliberate, recorded use by a European was not documented until as recently as 1955, when PR man and fungi fanatic R. Gordon Wasson was permitted to take part in the Mazatec ritual.
Anyway, I digress – away from the realm of the psychoactive and back towards the kitchen. When it comes to cooking with mushrooms, the European world was once again late to the party; it wasn’t until the conception of French haute cuisine in the 17th century that the appeal of edible fungi reached the Old World, and it wasn’t until the late 19th century that American families were commonly cooking up mushrooms in their home kitchens. One of the most instantly recognisable mushroom-heavy preparations is, of course, stroganoff, named after Russian diplomat Alexander Stroganov and first documented in 1871 in Elena Molokhovet’s classic Russian cookbook A Gift to Young Housewives.
However, your mushroom-based inventory should not stop there. Part of the beauty of fungi from a culinary perspective is in their versatility, which is often overlooked – particularly in Britain. If you’re a little behind on your knowledge, get to know these fabulous (and wildly different) varieties:
Morels or Morchella have a honeycomb-like appearance, and have a subtle, meaty flavour.
Best for: Light pasta with asparagus and cream.
Girolles or Chanterelles are orange-to-yellow, funnel-shaped, and have dense flesh with an almost apricot-like aroma.
Best for: Risotto with parsley and parma ham.
Enoki are a thin, long, white mushroom with firm, shiny caps. When fried, they take on a gorgeous crispy texture.
Best for: Scattering over chicken broth with spring onions and chilli.
HEN OF THE WOODS
Hen of the Woods or Maitake grow in clusters at the base of trees. They have a robust, earthy aroma and a strong, nutty taste.
Best for: Roasting whole with thyme and olive oil.
Related Articles: Thank God for Celery