Fungi – an essential cook’s ingredient

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/8009976/Rose-Prince-starts-her-new-column-in-the-Saturday-Telegraph-today.html but as one of these “doom-mongers” I want to add my own thoughts on why we do indeed need to embrace fungi.

The ability to forage for wild food is, as Rose Prince suggests, an essential survival technique, but cultivated fungi will also have an important part to play in sustainable food production.  They can be grown in places, such as caves, that would be entirely unsuitable for most other food production (cheese storage is the one other use I can think of for caves).  Up until only a few years ago the extensive network of caves and tunnels in the Bath/Bradford -on-Avon area, some of which were utilised during the war for weapons storage, grew much of the fungi that was sold in our supermarkets.  This has discontinued since it is now cheaper to import fungi from Eastern Europe.

The flavour of wild fungi is undoubtedly superior, and few varieties can be cultivated, but nonetheless those that can are immensely valuable to a frugal cook.  Their value lies in the Free Glutamates that all fungi contain, which make them high in the taste sensation we now call Umami.  This taste was only identified as recently as 1907, by a Professor Kikunae Ikeda.  The name Umami comes from Umai meaning delicious in Japanese and mi meaning essence – the essence of deliciousness.  Glutamate is an amino acid that is found throughout the human body and also in protein rich foods such as cheese, meat and fish.  When it is present in its free form, i.e. not bound together with other amino acids found in protein, it stimulates our glutamate receptors.  In meat, the glutamates are freed from their bound state by the cooking process, but my husband, an inveterate carnivore, will happily eat a meal of mushrooms where he would not be so happy with other vegetarian meals.  So, without dismissing the health benefits to which Rose Prince refers, I would put the ability to produce satisfying non-meat dishes as fungi’s greatest attribute.

To make wild fungi go further I tend to mix them with cultivated mushrooms – as in the recipe for mushroom sauce.   Boletus edulis (known as Penny Bun in England, Porcini in Italy and Cep in France) is widely regarded as the best flavoured wild fungi and is available dried.  Whilst dried fungi have a use, I find that too many of them in a dish will cause it to taste musty in a similar way that many dried herbs do.  But a small amount of dried porcini will impart their flavour throughout a whole pan of cultivated mushrooms.  Shiitake mushrooms, which can be cultivated, are especially good at absorbing flavour and also have a similar texture to porcini, so include some of these in your mix if you can.

If I have collected enough fungi to preserve some, my preferred method is freezing.  Providing they are cooked in plenty of butter this method works well for many of the finest flavoured, including Boletus edulis and Chanterelle.  If they are perfect specimens I keep the pieces as large as I can, but trimmings are also useful for flavouring.  These I press into ice cube trays for ease of use later.

Whilst many people do shy away from picking wild fungi, there are an increasing number who would like to do so.  It is not a skill that can be learnt overnight, but once bitten by the bug it is an absorbing and rewarding hobby.  For many years my husband and I had collected only a limited range of wild fungi.  We thought we recognised others but were not certain enough that we could tell them apart from poisonous lookalikes.  Two things helped grow our knowledge to a point where we can confidently indentify over 40 edible species.  Firstly, we joined our local fungi group, and there is one in most parts of the country, you can find your nearest here: www.britmycolsoc.org.uk .  I should perhaps warn that these groups are not solely interested in edible species and their use of correct botanical names can also be a tad off-putting, but they can provide a very sound foundation on which to build.  The most useful sessions that I have attended are their identification courses.  It matters not whether you are identifying an edible or non-edible variety, you will of course need to be able to do both, but the most important skill they can teach you is the systematic process of identification.  As we had found in our own efforts to identify species, if you just try to find a photograph that looks like what you have picked, you will soon find another equally likely candidate!  Learning how to use a good key is the first step and from one course you might expect to be able to identify several key groups of fungi if not many of the individuals within that group.

I mentioned that there were two major factors that grew our knowledge to its present level.  The second was an exceptional fungi season that coincided with a whole week of foraying.  At last we were able to find not only the species that we had suspected were edible but also the poisonous lookalikes and so be sure that we knew the difference.  I’m afraid I can’t predict when such an abundant season is next likely to occur, but it does prove the point that plenty of practical experience is required.

It would, of course, be wonderful if we could take fungi into our pharmacists to get a positive identification as happens in parts of the continent, but that is unlikely to happen overnight.  But that needn’t prevent anyone from gradually building their own knowledge.  Happy hunting!

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