In the kingdom of fungi, there is always a delicate dance of life and death underway. From death and decay, fungi bring forth a burst of life in often unexpected places. Many ancient cultures attributed magical powers to the weird and wonderful forest fruits that appeared to emerge almost overnight from the darkness of rotting logs and damp earth. Perhaps the most bizarre and gruesome manifestations of fungi life occurs in the jungles of Thailand where a particularly enterprising species infests the bodies of ants and hijacks their brain function. Once infected, these ‘zombie ants’ engage in quite specific behaviours that help the fungus reproduce, their heads eventually becoming home to the fungal organism’s fruiting bodies. By contrast, there are over 200 species of ants in the rainforest basin of South America so fond of mushrooms that they have been cultivating them for millions of years. The impressive symbiotic manoeuvrings of fungi indeed occupy the realm of the unusual.
The fruiting body of the fungi seen above ground tells only part of the story about the machinations of this mysterious organism and the important role it plays in soil ecology. Beneath any mushroom cap is a complex entanglement of webs and filaments which attach themselves to the roots of trees, extracting sugars and amino acids from its hosts above them while excreting enzymes that break down organic matter in the soil. This hidden world of underground transactions explains why fungi are so important to soil health. Industrial agriculture destroys beneficial soil fungi through excessive cultivation and application of chemical fertilisers, fungicides, insecticides and herbicides. On the other hand, one of the cornerstones of biodynamic farming is the application of liquid preparations that stimulate microbial activity which, in turn, promotes soil fungi. The decomposing goings-on of fungi facilitate the delivery of nutrients to plant roots, creating soil that teams with life through complex processes of decay and regeneration.
Mushrooms and fungi have long been valued and reviled for their culinary, medicinal, spiritual, hallucinogenic and toxic qualities. They have provided a difficult-to-detect toxin of choice for the poisoners over millennia. Pharmaceutical companies and practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine have shared an interest in the breadth of their therapeutic properties. Shamans and sages the world over, along with recreational drug users and hippies, have used their consciousness-altering qualities for spiritual expansion and fun times. For winemakers, fungi such as Botrytis cinerea are both friend and foe. Always present in viticulture, Botrytis only takes hold when introduced through a wound in the fruit’s skin, causing widespread rot in wet conditions. If followed by drier conditions, it creates the ‘noble rot’ that gives us distinctive dessert wines such as Tokaji and Sauternes.
Many (though not all) love fungi for their wonderful flavours and diversity of textures, from the crunchy cloud ear fungus commonly used in stir fries to the esteemed truffle sniffed out from beneath the soil’s surface by pigs and dogs. Prized for its heady aroma, the truffle is traditionally believed to have aphrodisiac qualities, perhaps attributable to the androstenol it emits, a mammalian steroid found in the saliva of randy boars and the underarm perspiration of men. However, studies have found that it is in fact the distinctive rotting cabbage smell of dimethyl sulfide that attracts dogs and pigs during the truffle hunt. It begs the question of whether the passion for the truffle’s musky funk of toey boars and sweaty men is really about its organoleptic qualities or whether truffle lovers are suffering from a bad case of culinary commodity fetishism. The high price of French perigold truffles (up to $3000 a kilogram on the wholesale market!) is maintained due to their short season, tendency to rot and generally temperamental nature. However, the recent success in cultivating truffles across southern Australia has risked creating a glut which is likely to put downward pressure on prices.
There was much excitement amongst mycophiles in Australia when, in 2011, porcini mushrooms (Boletus edulis, also known as the King Bolete) were found for the first time growing wild in the Adelaide Hills. It comes as no surprise that local chefs quickly snapped them up, keen to make the most of their velvety silkiness and rich earthy character. For me, one of the great joys of being in Europe during autumn is having easy access to fresh porcini mushrooms whose texture, flavour and aroma I find far more intoxicating than that of truffles. The definition of heartbreak is encountering a pile of fresh porcinis at the market and having no kitchen in which to cook them.
For every edible mushroom that promises gastronomic rapture, there are hundreds of others whose effects range from mild gastrointestinal upset to total organ failure and death. The skill of wild mushroom foragers is not only their keen eye for spotting their object of desire along the forest floor but also their critical ability to correctly identify the subtle differences between poisonous and edible species. This hit home recently when two people in Canberra died and two others were made very ill after picking and cooking the rather unremarkable-looking Death Cap, or Amanita phalloides, which was mistaken for a Chinese straw mushroom. It’s clear to see why foraging is not for amateurs.
Autumn is when the Slippery Jack (Suillus luteus) and Saffron Milk Cap (Lactarius deliciosus, also known as the pine mushroom) find their way into the markets and onto our plates through the dedicated effort and skill of expert foragers. In search of wild mushrooms for a dinner last week, I dropped by the Queen Victoria Market hoping to find some in decent condition. If the weather is warm, as it has been, it’s not usual for them to look sad, slimy and thoroughly unappetising. I was delighted to encounter not only a glorious selection of Saffron Milk Caps and Slippery Jacks in good nick but also the mother of all giant toadstools (the Boletus portentosus, closely related to the Slippery Jack). At almost one-metre wide and at least 40 centimetres deep, it was large enough to house an entire family of Smurfs. Clearly the cooling rain, followed by recent warm weather, has created the ideal growing conditions for fungi.
The Slippery Jack and Saffron Milk Cap (not to be confused with the matsutake, a different species of pine mushroom) are found in reasonable abundance in pine plantations across much of southern Australia, though serious foragers will never reveal which ones. The plain-Jane, mud-brown Slippery Jack is no beauty; the older it is, the more likely that insect larvae have inhabited the yellow sponge covering its underside. The brown skin on its cap is usually slimy and is best peeled off as it can cause stomach upset. When cooked, they have a luscious slippery texture that is wonderful in a creamy risotto. The Saffron Milk Cap is far more robust and crunchy. The carrot-coloured, concave cap turns a greenish hue when bruised; when cut open, it bleeds a staining orange-red latex (hence the reference to milk). The stalks are not particularly edible, and the cap itself should be sliced and cooked quickly at a high temperature to avoid stewing. Wild mushrooms should be cleaned by rubbing with a dry tea towel as water will render them soggy and unappetising.
Simplicity is the way to go with wild mushrooms. Sautéed quickly in butter with a little garlic and parsley and served on toast or in an omelette, they make a decadent breakfast.
Veal scaloppini with sage and wild mushroom cream sauce
4 pieces of veal scaloppini (get your butcher to pound them flat for you)
60 grams butter
1 tablespoon of olive oil
1 shallot, finely diced
125 ml chicken stock
75 ml of dry white wine or vermouth
3-5 Slippery Jacks and/or Saffron Milk Caps, sliced (half a packet of dried porcinis will also do if there is no supply of wild mushrooms)
Small handful of fresh sage leaves, torn
Small handful of parsley, finely chopped
Season veal with salt and pepper, and brown in a shallow, heavy-bottomed pan with half the butter, taking care not to cook the meat all the way through (about 1-2 minutes per side). Remove the veal from the pan, and place on a platter covered with foil. Add olive oil and the remaining butter to the pan. Sauté the shallot and sliced mushrooms with torn sage leaves on high heat. Add white wine or vermouth along with the chicken stock, and reduce liquid by half. Reduce heat to medium, pour the cream into the reduction and simmer until the sauce thickens slightly. Return the veal to the saucepan, along with any juices which might have collected in the plate. Warm gently in pan for 1-2 minutes. Stir in parsley, and taste for seasoning.
Roger Vergé’s salad of quails with wild mushrooms
The original version of this salad calls for chanterelles. These are available at specialty mushroom stockists in Australia, but are imported from France and sold at extraordinary prices.
200 grams soft lettuce leaf (such as lamb’s lettuce or butter lettuce)
200 grams Saffron Milk Cap
2 plump quails
small bouquet of chives, parsley and chervil, finely chopped
1 teaspoon strong Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
5 tablespoons olive oil
15 grams butter
salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 250C degrees. Wash and drain the salad leaves. Brush the mushroom caps with a clean tea towel until clean. Sauté sliced mushrooms in 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a frying pan for 3-4 minutes over high heat. Do not allow them to stew. Season quails inside and out. Place in a small roasting tin with the butter, and roast for 15 minutes. When they are done, bone the quails and put the meat aside on a covered plate in a slightly warm oven.
Drain butter from pan in which the quails have cooked, and add 2 tablespoons of wine vinegar. Simmer briefly over moderate heat, scraping up the juices and caramelised deposits. Pour immediately into a bowl and add the mustard, salt, pepper and the remaining olive oil. Whisk together, check the seasoning and add the herbs.
Arrange the washed and dried lettuce leaves on a platter, and drizzle with a tablespoon of the vinaigrette. Pile the mushrooms in the middle, adding more dressing. Top with the quail meat cut into small pieces. Serve the remainder of the dressing on the side for those who would like more. The salad can be enjoyed warmed or cold, but the quails and mushrooms should not be refrigerated and the lettuce should only be dressed at the last minute.
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