Mushrooms are mysterious creatures. Some believe they house fairies, while others reduce them to side dishes of steak and potatoes. Mushrooms are neither plants nor animals. So what are these fascinating little bulbs of mystery that spring up from the mossy forest floor?
Under our noses and feet, tiny “spores” live; the mushrooms we see are actually the physical manifestation of these spores, tiny microbes that feed off dead trees, moist earth and worm dung. Can we explain the biological make up of mushrooms, or the chemicals that produce their toxins or delightful flavors? Not exactly.
Mycologists, those who study mushrooms as a science, lack comprehensive knowledge of every mushroom, partly due to the fact that there are thousands of species. Most shoot up randomly from the earth, making them difficult to harvest intentionally, except for a few simple kinds. Mycology needs a revolutionary scientist and more research so we can truly understand these unique products of life.
We all recognize certain common mushrooms like the white button, portabella and shitake when they appear on our plates. Yet, few of us are aware of the underground network that is the gourmet mushroom business. Take porcini and chanterelles, for example. Expert hunters can sell these mushrooms for up to $40 a pound. Through the back door of elegant restaurants, these wild and succulent mushrooms travel into our world from their clandestine birthplaces. The buttery flavor of the chanterelle speaks to refined taste buds, the porcini infuses dishes like risotto and the delicate flavors induce a kind of mushroom euphoria, keeping one in anticipation of the next serving.
PLEASURES AND DANGERS
Younger people are interested in hallucinogenic kinds of mushrooms that also yield absurd prices, often $40 or more for an eighth of a pound. Flavor is the last concern of these mushroom seekers. Certain species taste awful, induce vomiting, and most importantly cause a “trip,” a mental stupor enduring for hours which causes its consumers to feel elation, confusion, and a transcended mental state in which strange feelings are encountered. Although vending these “‘shrooms” is highly illegal, it does not shock us to find them in the wild and hear of friends who have used them and tripped out. In Europe, some cities, like Dublin and Amsterdam, have mushroom shops where one can purchase hallucinogenic varieties. These tend to be stronger than their American cousins.
There are many pleasures and dangers involved in picking wild mushrooms. In the forest, while meandering around the greenery, we see these colorful and outstanding creatures and get magnetically drawn to them (at least I do). It is a simple feeling: curiosity provoked by beauty. Yet, in order to consume any kind of wild mushrooms, one cannot underestimate the crucial need to study and harbor confidence in identification skills.
Europeans have been collecting wild truffles and chanterelles for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. In Italy, the truffle is a prized find, and Italians train dogs to sniff out the scent of the coveted mushrooms that grow underground and must be dug up. The French are notoriously fond of mushrooms and their cuisine reflects this affinity. Chances are that if you go to France or Italy, you will encounter at least a few people who know the local ‘shroomery and would be delighted to guide you to the hot spots, (unless, of course, it is truffle season).
In America, it is a different story. Mushroom enthusiasts are few and far between. In California, chefs from the Nappa Valley and the San Francisco Bay area peruse the hills in a hunt for wild morels. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a book about how food appears on our table and the choices we make in deciding what to eat, author Michael Pollan elaborates on a wild mushroom hunting experience in California with a Sicilian chef from the area. Wild mushrooms were an element of Pollan’s “self-sustaining meal,” a meal he completely harvested and hunted for himself. His point is that hunting and foraging our own food brings us closer to nature and to our innate instincts. The feeling pervades anyone on the prowl for wild mushrooms. In a sense, we shrink. We become aware of tiny creatures, inches tall, and their potential to harm us or gratify our senses.