From sautéeing slimy wood blewits with garlic and cream to shaping tempura parasols, mycologist John Wright knows all the tricks for cooking champion champignon dishes.
May I assume you know that some mushrooms will have you spending time in a small room contemplating your folly and that 25 will cheerfully kill you? Good. All will be well. Here, I will mention only fungi that are easy to recognise; most are unmistakeable. Really.
Let us put morbid concerns aside for the moment and contemplate instead some of the many ways in which wild mushrooms may be cooked. I’ve always been a conservative when it comes to preparing fungi—a quick fry-up in butter—but experimentation and the inspiration of others has shown me that a well-balanced dish can enhance, rather than mask, the flavour of these incomparable treasures. And mush- rooms, being one of the umami ingredients, can enhance the flavour of an entire dish.
Although the difference in flavour between mushrooms is mostly subtle, it’s the texture that really guides the cook. They can be soft and crumbly, soft and rubbery, fibrous or a little slippery/slimy (in a good way). The slimiest of all mushrooms is the late-autumn wood blewit—at least, when cooked. As such, it’s my favourite for classic sautéed mushrooms with garlic and cream. The slightly floral flavour matches the garlic perfectly. Sticky, slimy, garlicky, creamy, flowery—a simple joy.
Mushrooms don’t appear all year round, so it’s good to have these reminders of misty-morning forays stored in the larder. Most mushrooms will dry and reconstitute well (hedgehog mushrooms being an exception—they reconstitute like wine corks), so leftover mushrooms, stems of ceps and birch boletes and mushrooms I just don’t know what to do with go into my electric food drier. I then reduce them to a fine powder, which will make a guest appearance in almost every savoury dish I make, usually with some dried seaweed (another umami ingredient) to keep it company.If you want to make the best mushroom powder, then use ceps and (especially) the sometimes elusive and totally black horn of plenty. The latter goes well in an omelette, provided you don’t mind your eggs grey.
Pickled wild mushrooms are worth a try, too, if for no other reason than to amusingly frighten guests. The best pickler is that much-hated ruination of previously immaculate lawns, the fairy-ring champignon. Discard the tough stems, salt the caps for an hour, drain, repeat and wash thoroughly, but very quickly. Blanch in a little cider vinegar for 20 seconds, drain, place in a jar and cover with your oil of choice.
The statuesque parasol mushroom troops across fields in vast numbers in the autumn, tempting even the most restrained of foragers to pick more than they can carry. Even a single specimen can be too much—the largest I ever encountered was 15in in diameter and I reminisce about it as if it were a dream. Yes, I do dream about mushrooms.
In tempura batter, parasols are perfect-crunchy/crispy outside, melted mushroom within. Any attempt to fry them, however, will result in a mushroom-flavoured dishcloth.
Texture is more important in a salad than in cooked food, so slippery/slimy isn’t to be considered and most mushrooms require cooking to release their flavour. Brittlegills, however, are at their very best raw. They’re brittle/crumbly all over with a delightful nutty/mushroomy flavour. Some are very peppery and gently poisonous, but the mild ones are good to eat and safe—enabling the brave to decide which to collect by taking a very small nibble. Be warned—this trick only works with brittle- gills, so get your guidebooks out.
The only species collected in Britain until very recently were the field and horse mushroom. They’re nearly always fried or grilled with butter—a simple and unsurpassable dish, provided all the water is boiled away in the pan so that the mush- rooms can sizzle and brown. Victorian cookbooks, however, are of the opinion that the only thing worth doing with them is to make ketchup. A glut of mushrooms will have you scratching around for some- thing to do with the damn things and this is the thing. Traditionally, it’s black and only the spores of field and horse mush- rooms will provide the required colour (shaggy inkcaps are edible with black spores, but they taste like boiled polystyrene). The idea is to chop finely some mature mushrooms and mix them with salt (about a dessert spoon to 2lb), then cover them for four hours to allow the salt to extract the mushroom juice. The whole is boiled in a pan with shallots, spices such as cinnamon and cloves plus cider vinegar. Once cool, strain through muslin into bottles.
Surprisingly, field and horse mushrooms are among the most treacherous to identify because they have a near double in the yellow stainer. Fortunately, these aren’t deadly, content with providing you with an action-packed 24 hours of discomfort. Although very similar to the field mushroom, they bruise an instant bright yellow on rubbing and smell of TCP when cooked.
For sheer visual delight and delicacy of flavour, the chanterelle is unbeatable. It requires light cooking to preserve the flavour and the texture, which quickly becomes tough if overdone. These may be used in a tart, but simply sautéed and served whole shows them at their best.
The cep isn’t called the king of mushrooms for nothing. It’s nutty and slightly sticky when cooked, with the most intense flavour of all the large mushrooms. Unlike the chanterelle, it requires at least 10 minutes in the pan for the flavour to be realised. The best soup I ever made (bar a shore-crab bisque) was with ceps—thick, creamy and overwhelmingly intense. My fellow forager, Monica Wilde, adds walnuts to hers.
Like a crock of gold nestling on the trunk of an oak tree, chicken of the woods always inspires wonderment. Only the thin edge bears eating, but it is truly worth it. Just slice a little off the edge of a few of the tiers and leave the rest to produce its spores. Its name comes from a not too fanciful comparison with chicken, as it’s soft and slightly fibrous. Another comparison is with tofu—except that it actually tastes of something: mushroom. These give a key to how it might be used in a curry, a quiche, a cream, a cheese sauce or…
Large mushroom of late autumn, woodland, sometimes rings in fields. Purple all over when young. Soft, sticky/slimy. Fragrant when cooked.
Horn of plenty
Posh cousin of the chanterelle, entirely black with a superb, intense flavour.
A humble garden or pasture fungus. Small, pale orange and delicious.
A large and tall mushroom of grassland. Delicate flavour, fibrous.
Short of stem, often bright cap colours. Crumbly texture. A difficult-to-identify species. Some mildly poisonous.
Field and horse mushrooms
Grow on grassland. Sweet and nutty when young, bitter when mature.
Bright yellow. Found with oak, beech and pine. Firm texture, smells of apricots.
Large mushroom of oak and beech. Firm, not fibrous, except the stem. The most versatile of all the mushrooms.
Chicken of the woods
Enormous, bright-yellow bracket found on oak and sometimes sweet chestnut. Mild but pleasant flavour, slight fibrous texture.
You must pick and eat only those specimens that you’re completely sure are edible. Seek advice or get hold of at least two guidebooks, including the author’s ‘River Cottage Handbook No.1 Mushrooms’ (Bloomsbury, £13.49)