Mushrooms are astounding when you start looking into them. They literally hold the forest together, growing among tree roots, sharing nutrients with them and composting dead wood and leaves. Forests couldn’t work without mushrooms.
Fungi are neither fruit nor vegetables; some look otherworldly, many are inedible. But others are delicious and, some claim, can also have a positive medical impact, from reducing cholesterol (oyster) to anti-HIV activity (maitake), and repairing skin damage (cauliflower mushroom). Is there no end to the sheer wonder of mushrooms?
Technically a summer mushroom, this juicy, sturdy, golden morsel is also known as a golden chanterelle and grows from July through to autumn in the UK. Selling at around £6/250g, girolles are wonderfully versatile. Featuring ridged, wrinkly gills travelling up to the concave cap, girolles have got that fruity forest thing going on, and some say they taste like apricots.
Pretty and petite, chanterelles are long with a thinner hollow stem than a trompette, and a small trumpet or flower-like flourish for a cap at the top. Found in two different coloured outfits, yellow and grey, they’re a big hit in restaurants in the autumn, draped over steaks and as a topping on creamy soups. They have a subtle taste, and a chewy but light texture. They grow in decent amounts all over Europe, and cost about £10/250g.
Truffles aside, ceps are the jackpot fungi: their taste is unmistakable and addictive. Sturdy and textured, they look much like the iconic forest mushroom, but have a sweet, caramel-like taste, a full-force hit of umami. They have a large, creamy, solid stem, and a soft chestnut-brown cap with pores rather than gills on their underside.
They start to grow in mid-summer, but they’re really at their best as the temperature cools and the flavours develop. They cost around £15/250g depending on the weather, but you can buy cheaper dried porcini throughout the year.
Ranging from jet black to black-brown, trompettes are striking. Think Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent, but in mushroom form. Popping up around the roots of trees from September until November, they grow amongst moss and twigs and will cost around £12/250g.
They often come with a fine layer of mud so will need a quick bath – see cleaning opposite. They’re plentiful once found and come with an intense, nutty flavour. They dry well and you’ll usually find them as the main variety of mushroom in a mixed dried pack.
Nutty, earthy, full of essence and aroma, truffles are the bee’s knees. They have no stem, gills or pores and grow completely underground, only to be found by dogs that sniff them out. Truffles are round, hard balls, differing in size and strength according to their age and type, starting with black truffles in summer, to pungent and expensive white truffles in autumn.
Cut open, a truffle reveals a pattern of intricate little mazes and looks great as shavings. You’ll pay around £15 for a good black truffle (around 30g) at the beginning of autumn, and three times as much for an average white truffle. Invest in white truffle oil if you’re looking for a taste without the financial sting.
Wild mushroom foraging sounds very romantic, but a professional forager is essential – this can be a dangerous business! There’s a huge network of them throughout Europe, and beyond, who have years of experience. These foragers know how to identify and pick mushrooms safely, while maintaining the forests and hedgerows.
I have a set of ‘tools’ as there’s no one cleaning solution that fits all mushrooms:
• cloth or kitchen paper
• a small paring knife or triangle-icing tool
• a firm brush like a pastry brush
• a delicate, thin paintbrush
• a small bowl of lukewarm water
More delicate, non-absorbent mushrooms, like chanterelles or trompettes, can handle a quick, lukewarm water bath to massage out any dirt. In contrast, mushrooms like girolles or ceps will take in moisture, and with it any tastes, so they benefit from brushing and wiping with a damp cloth or kitchen roll. The tweezers and small brush are essential for getting any trapped dirt out of nooks and crannies.
Use truffles within two days to get the best out of them – keep in the fridge, wrapped in dry kitchen paper and sealed in a plastic bag. Wild mushrooms generally last up to a week in an uncovered container or open paper bag in the fridge, but more robust cultivated types can last up to two weeks or more. Mushrooms are best fresh, though, so no matter the type, eat them as soon as you can.
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