Across most of Northern Europe home cooks will take regular walks in the fields and woods in search of wild mushrooms for dinner but here in Britain we tend to be afraid of eating poisonous fungi and don’t bother. I don’t really know why this should be – perhaps our childhood literary diet was to blame – from Alice in Wonderland to tales of witchcraft and sorcery we were taught that mushrooms are not to be messed with.
I’m not the greatest forager myself so this is not a lesson on how to safely pick mushrooms (although there is nothing quite like frying up a pan of field mushrooms after an autumn walk) but maybe we should all at least try eating a wider variety of cultivated mushrooms.
The supermarkets are full of ceps / porcini mushrooms (yes they are the same thing), oyster mushrooms, shitake and even enoki but most of these will have been imported so check the label. It might be better to check local veg shops, farm shops and farmers markets for foraged mushrooms and for the increasing number of exotic varieties cultivated here in the UK.
I was lucky enough to visit Marlborough Mushrooms a while back where they grow oyster and shitake mushrooms commercially for sale to local restaurants and at the local farmer’s market. This is the simplest of set ups, housed in two insulated, temperature controlled containers (one for incubating and one for growing) with a packing area in between them.
In the wild shitake mushrooms grow on the dead wood of a tree which is closely related to the Oak. At Marlborough Mushrooms they grow them on blocks of compressed oak chippings. The chippings are placed in a bag and inoculated with the mycelium, then the bag is kept in a controlled environment for a number of weeks to incubate until the wood chippings become bonded into a solid block which turns chestnut brown indicating that they are ready to fruit. At this point the blocks are removed from the bag and transferred to the growing room and this is where the magic happens. Oyster mushrooms are grown in a similar fashion alongside the shitakes and a trip into the dark container, heady with the earthy smell of healthy fungi becomes an altogether different experience when the light goes on and you are confronted with serried ranks of golden and grey and brown mushrooms all ready and waiting to be harvested.
After harvesting, the blocks are rested and then used all over again for a second crop. Once the blocks have finished producing commercially viable amounts of mushrooms they can still be re-used by the home grower to produce enough mushrooms to delight your family. Once they are completely exhausted they can be dried and used as fuel for the wood burner so all in all this is a truly sustainable, low impact business.
Having visited the farm I was lucky enough to come away with a bag full of wonderful shitake and oyster mushrooms as well as some of Marlborough Mushroom’s added value products including dried mushrooms, mixed mushroom antipasti and a pot of wonderful mushroom and walnut pesto. I couldn’t wait to get home and start cooking.
One of the reasons vegetarians love mushrooms is that they can provide a wonderfully meaty flavour and texture so that a meat free meal becomes more satisfying but they also work really well with meat – think dark rich winter casseroles full of beef and mushrooms or a classic stroganoff. But mushrooms can also be light and delicate and they feature heavily in Japanese cuisine which is noted for its subtlety.
When I got home I made a batch of homemade egg pasta and we ate tagliatelle with mushroom and walnut pesto, some mushrooms, gently sautéed in olive oil with a little garlic and topped with some grated parmesan. Apart from the pesto this is too simple to warrant a recipe of its own and as the pesto recipe remains a secret I guess you’ll just have to experiment unless you live near Marlborough.
Next morning we sautéed some more of the mushrooms in a little butter and garlic (we do like garlic) and piled it onto hot buttered toast with a few torn leaves of parsley scattered over the top to make a simple, tasty brunch and to set me up for the more delicate task of making a Japanese steamed custard (to which I also added some shitake and enoki mushrooms).
At this point Martin, in an effort to be amusing, noted that so far we had eaten brunch, a starter and a main course but he was still waiting for his mushroom dessert! Never one to resist a challenge I started thinking.
On pay day my dad always called in at the sweet shop on his way home from work. He always bought exactly the same thing – a bar of Fry’s Peppermint Cream for himself, a bar of Old Jamaica rum and raisin chocolate for my mum and a bag of coconut mushrooms for me and my younger brother. I was still wondering what dessert to make when I spotted a bag of these coconut mushrooms at the checkout in a greengrocer’s of all places. I bought a bag for nostalgia’s sake and on the way home concocted a way of making sweet coconut mushrooms with real mushrooms.
This recipe really did call for button mushrooms. I poached the mushrooms in a sugar syrup then coated them in a toffee sauce before rolling them in dessicated coconut. They tasted better than they had any right to but I don’t really count them amongst my greatest culinary successes. Still a challenge was made and a challenge was met.
Whether you forage for mushrooms, cultivate them yourself or buy them in a shop spend a little time getting to know the range of flavours available and have fun experimenting. I know I did!
If you would like to grow mushrooms commercially yourself contact Dewi at Marlborough Mushroomsdewi@marlboroughmushrooms.com
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