What a fun-gi
Marvellous mushrooms are at their peak in autumn, says Rachel Allen, so now’s the time to pick up your basket and go foraging for fungi. Photography by Tony Gavin
Mushrooms are unique, as they are neither a vegetable nor a fruit (they are a fungus), and have a unique texture and an almost meaty flavour. Here, autumn is the time for most wild mushrooms; the season kicks off in August with the golden-yellow chanterelles popping up in woodlands — these are delicious fried in butter, with a little garlic and parsley, and served on toast.
There was a time when the only mushrooms we ate were of the foraged variety. Now though, the vast majority are cultivated, meaning year-round availability, and, of course safety, although the flavour of a properly wild mushroom can be hard to beat.
Like the chanterelle, the basic wild field mushroom is easy to identify, with its white cap and pale gills underneath, which range from white to pink in colour. But, when you’re foraging, it’s important to know exactly what you’re looking for. Not all mushrooms are edible, and some are deadly, with the odd hallucinogenic thrown in for good measure. The brilliant book,
Mushrooms and Other Fungi of Great Britain and Ireland,
by expert forager Roger Phillips, is invaluable for checking mushrooms when picking them in the wild. He also has a website, rogersmushrooms.com.
Of all the wild mushrooms, perhaps the most most revered are porcinis (the Italian name), which are known as ceps in France. They have an exquisite umami flavour. They can be found in the wild in Ireland, or you can buy them at a greengrocers. For the most part, though, we get them in their dried form. Dried porcinis are good for using all year round.
Try slicing and drying mushrooms yourself to preserve them for months. By steeping the dried mushrooms in boiling water, their flavour and essence can be revived, stronger in some ways than the fresh variety. That soaking broth also makes a wonderful addition to your pasta sauce or risotto. This mushroom tarragon tart, right, made with dried porcinis and their soaking liquid, is the perfect autumnal treat.
The large and very meaty Portobello mushrooms are farmed successfully and are great as a veggie burger, or in casseroles. Chestnut mushrooms, which are farmed, are not dissimilar to the ubiquitous white button mushrooms, but their colour is a deep golden brown and they have a more enhanced flavour. Oyster and enoki mushrooms are Japanese in origin and are cultivated in Ireland, too. These are what I’ve used for the exotic mushroom a la creme dish, pictured above right.
I love this lamb’s kidney and mushroom salad, far right, which is just perfect at this time of year and a truly lovely expression of the marvellous mushroom.