Food & Drink: CULTIVATE TO ACCUMULATE

Traditionally a bonus for the peasant table, wild mushrooms used to be strictly seasonal. Now they are available any time, says Michael Bateman
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The Independent Culture
IF YOU go down to the woods today, don't expect to find blewits. The season for wild mushrooms is over, suppressed by the cold hand of winter. Yet suddenly you can buy wood blewits in supermarkets. What's going on?

It's the end of January, Tesco has a whole range of (out-of-season) wild mushrooms - chanterelles, trompettes de mort, grilles, pieds de mouton - not to mention cultivated varieties such as shiitake, a newish one called maitake and now, newest of all, the cultivated wood blewit. We may be too blase to be surprised by this news, accustomed as are we to buying strawberries in February and asparagus any week of the year. But wood blewits? Even in the costlier corners of Harvey Nichols the wood blewit, one of only a handful of wild mushrooms considered to be really tasty and safe, has been a rarity.

Wild fungi are the treasures of wood and forest, the ultimate food for free. Traditionally a welcome bonus for the peasant table, or an added relish for the larder, they lend themselves to preserving - either dried to flavour stews, or pickled in vinegar and oil for antipasti.

Until recently, these wild fungi were strictly seasonal, and known only to the inquiring few. Then the fickle finger of fashion touched the restaurant scene and demand has escalated. Considering they grow for free, they command some hefty prices, so a fortune awaits those who can meet growing needs.

Now, nearly every specialist food shop and delicatessen can produce a selection - at a price. And it was only a matter of time before a supermarket would jump on the bandwagon. The store in question is Tesco. Cast your mind back to its television campaign for free-range chickens and the exploits of Dudley Moore in perhaps his most comical role, combing the forests of Les Landes to seek them out. Well, the same man who brought chickens to Tesco has done it again with mushrooms. He's an amiable Bordeaux dealer called Pierre Thaibaud. While it is one thing to source wild mushrooms, chasing the seasons from northern to southern hemisphere, he has gone one stage further, introducing "cultivated" wild mushrooms such as maitake and wood blewit.

The world of fungi is one in which we British are particularly innocent. The best reason for not picking them must be our ignorance in distinguishing between the safe and toxic ones. In Europe alone there are 5,000 varieties, of which 1,200 are edible - if not very tasty. At least 30 are very poisonous. In France you can take them to a pharmacist for identification but here we have no guidelines. So we stand off while those with expertise plunder our wild harvests. Russians, Poles, French, Spaniards, Austrians, Serbo- Croats, Japanese, Chinese and of course famous Italians such as Franco Taruschio and the Neal Street restaurateur and TV cook, Antonio Carluccio.

I once pressed the naturalist Richard Mabey, author of Food for Free, to take me on a fungus foray. In woods near Southwold in Suffolk we found tough-skinned boletus and frilly chanterelles. I remember the thrill of identifying shaggy ink cap and parasol mushrooms. Later I fried them with no more than a knob of butter and I can still recall their smooth, chewy texture and delicate, sweet taste.

A little knowledge was a dangerous thing. A week later I took my family to an old wood. Biting into what seemed a friendly-looking variety, I spat it out it out as soon as I realised I'd made a mistake. I failed to notice that my son, then eight, was copying me. Later he went silent and then pale green. Grasping the scrap of fungus still held in his hand we rushed him to Ipswich hospital. They had, luckily, an arrangement with a Cambridge University mycologist who was able to provide identification and advised the use of a stomach pump. My son was eventually released none the worse for wear. The father was less comfortable, which explains why I hesitate to write seasonal pieces about fungus forays and am delighted by the supermarket mushroom harvest, seasonal or not.

Tesco's importer, Pierre Thaibaud, arranged for me to meet a remarkable Swiss grower, Jean-Patrick Ducommun, who has taken a huge leap forward in the science of commercial mycology.

We met at Geneva airport, and J-P drove us through a beautiful snowscape towards the mountains in the part of Switzerland closest to France, heading for 12km of man-made caves which are home to his huge operation. He is not far from the university city of Neuchatel, known for its Mycology Institute. It is here that J-P educated himself in the recondite arts and sciences of fungus.

We arrive at Saint Sulpice in the Val de Travers. Here his packing factory stands at the Stygian entrance to caves (where they once excavated stone and clay for making cement). Extending some 250 metres under the mountainside, it is an eerie, silent, dark, humid, cold place to be.

But it is heaven for his fungi, for here, in only five years, he has succeeded in developing such modern cultivated specimen as shiitake, maitake, oyster mushrooms and cauliflower mushrooms. And now he has managed to bring the wild wood blewit into his orbit.

We walk through gallery after dimly-lit gallery lined with what look like black plastic bin-liners filled with straw, sawdust or manure, the substrates on which mushrooms grow.

Muck and magic. Muck certainly, for J-P brings in 75 tons of manure at a time. Magic in that the lore of fungi throughout history has been closer to witchcraft than science. But J-P's genius has been to master the metabolism of fungus, how they thrive and reproduce. A mixture of science plus psychology, he laughs.

It's a question of understanding the mycelium, the mother organism, he explains. Mycelium grows from spore into a complex rooting web which feeds off material under the soil or under leaf mould or in crevices of decaying trees. The secret is to put the mycelium under stress, and force it to "fruit". The fruit being the mushrooms.

"The mycelium is paranoiac," says J-P. "Too much water makes it afraid. It hates it when it's too hot or too cold." By preying on its fears, J- P simulates stress conditions in the forest, dramatically changing temperature and moisture to speed the mycelium into action. For example, a mycelium will fruit in warmish weather after a heavy shower. So, if his fungus refuses to cooperate, J-P is not above applying a high pressure hose to each bag, even picking them up and thumping them on the stone floor to replicate the Mother of all June Thunderstorms.

Each fungus has its own secrets. The oyster mushroom which grows in decaying trees, for example, is sensitive to minute changes of carbon dioxide. A change of concentration of 0.03 per cent is enough to prompt it to throw its fruit and form a cap as it emerges from a crevice in the bark. The models for J-P's work were the shiitake and maitake of Japan and he has visited research institutes there to see them growing. The shiitake is the oldest known cultivated mushroom, dating back some 3,000 years. The first growing technique was laborious: holes were made in decayed logs, spore inserted and the holes plugged with sawdust. It took two years to produce each crop.

In the 1950s, they discovered how to grow shiitake on compressed sawdust, reducing the growing time to 120 days. Now, using a straw substrate, they can achieve results in a mere three weeks.

"An ideal substrate would be the Independent on Sunday," says J-P. "Soak a copy in water. Give it a blast in the microwave to kill bacteria. Feed it with shiitake spore, and nurse it at the right temperature." He is looking into using waste from paper mills as a future substrate. Jean- Patrick grows his oyster mushrooms in a speedy 120 days. In all he cultivates a dozen varieties, but his biggest breakthrough has been the wood blewit, which the French know as pied-bleu.

They are a sight to behold, each crop throwing a protective white mousse- like blanket to protect the sensitive mycelium (in the forest it tucks itself under an eiderdown of rotting leaves). When they burst forth, in a million twisting shapes, none like the next, they have an unreal, ghostly, lilac pallor. In J-P's opinion, the blewit is the best cultivated variety so far. It is especially tasty, and more delicate than the wild sort, which can be coarse, he says. Being quite substantial, they are good for cooking.

Over a feast of mushrooms in a nearby Swiss hostelry, J-P illustrates that mushrooms are just about the easiest food to cook. Most are best fried over medium heat for three to five minutes in butter or oil or a mixture of both, with a little chopped garlic and parsley added 30 seconds before the end. Cream helps to enhance the flavours.

And, urges J-P, with cultivated varieties you won't encounter grubs, maggots, insects, worms, or the detritus of mice and flies. You don't need to wash them, in fact, you ought not to as you will wash the flavour away, but you may need to cut away gritty roots. They should be used quickly, though they keep a couple of days in the fridge.

Wild mushrooms go well with pasta, and here is a recipe by the great teacher of Italian cooking, Marcella Hazan, from her comprehensive new book, Marcella Cucina (Macmillan pounds 25).

If you have more than you can cook, then you can pickle them according to the instructions below from Carluccio's guide to cooking and identifying the more edible varieties. A Passion for Mushrooms (Pavilion pounds 12.95).

PARPADELLE FETTUCINE

Marcello Hazan would use home-made pasta, such as parpadelle or fettucine. You could substitute maitake or blewits for shiitake mushrooms.

Enough sauce for 450g (1lb) of pasta to serve 6

350g/12oz fresh white cultivated mushrooms

225g/8oz fresh shiitake mushrooms

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

115g/4oz onion, chopped

1 tablespoon chopped garlic

2 tablespoons chopped Italian flat-leaf parsley

25g/1oz butter

100ml/4fl oz double cream

salt and freshly ground black pepper

100g/312oz freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Rinse the mushrooms quickly under fast-running water. Thinly slice the white mushrooms lengthways. Detach and discard the hard shiitake stems and slice the caps into thin crescents.

Put the oil and onion into a 30cm (12in) saute pan, turn on the heat to medium high and cook the onion, stirring occasionally, until it becomes translucent. Add the garlic and continue cooking, stirring until the garlic begins to release its scent, without letting it become any darker than a pale gold colour.

Add the parsley, stir quickly once or twice, then add the mushrooms. Add salt - do not be salt-shy if you want to avoid a bland sauce - turn over all the ingredients a few times, then cover the pan and turn the heat down to medium. Cook for about 10 minutes or until the liquid that the mushrooms shed has simmered away.

Add the butter, cream and a liberal grinding of pepper to the pan, raise the heat to maximum, and reduce the cream to half its original volume, stirring often.

When the pasta is tender, but firm to the bite, drain it, and toss it immediately in a warm bowl with the mushroom sauce. Add the cheese, toss thoroughly to coat the pasta well. Serve at once.

MUSHROOMS IN BRINE

Choose only the most tender specimens - they are the most likely to be maggot-free, and be sure to clean them thoroughly - use water to rinse them before cooking. The taste of the vinegar can be softened by adding extra herbs. Mushrooms reduce in volume by about half when pickled, so calculate accordingly when filling your jars. (These should be sterilised screw-top jars, small ones are a good idea as the contents need to be consumed soon after opening.)

2kg/4lb mushrooms, cleaned and sliced or cut up according to size

1 litre/2 pints good white wine vinegar

500ml/1 pint water

1 tablespoon salt and a few black peppercorns

small sprig rosemary

5-6 bayleaves

1 medium onion, quartered

2 cloves garlic, peeled

Combine the ingredients and boil for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, cook the mushrooms in salted water for eight minutes, drain, add to the vinegar and boil together for five minutes. Remove the mushrooms with a sterilised spoon and fill jars with them, leaving some space for the liquor. Let the brine cook for a further 10 minutes and set aside to cool. When completely cool, cover the mushrooms with the liquor. Cover the jars: they will keep for a long time.

To serve, drain the mushrooms and toss in a few drops of olive oil.

MUSHROOMS IN OIL

This second method, the usual one in Italy, is slightly more expensive since the mushrooms have to be immersed in pure olive oil - but the results are worth it. Again, only the best tender young specimens should be used, and absolute cleanliness is paramount.

2kg/4lb mushrooms, cleaned and cut

1 litre/2 pints good white wine vinegar

500ml/1 pint water

2 tablespoons salt

5 bayleaves, 10 cloves

olive oil

Bring the brine ingredients to the boil, add the mushrooms and boil for five to 10 minutes. Drain the mushrooms and, without using your hands because the mushrooms are now sterilised, spread on a very clean cloth to cool and dry for a few hours. Sterilise jars that can be tightly closed. Put a few mushrooms into a jar, pour in a little olive oil to cover and (using the same spoon for each operation) mix gently so that the oil reaches all parts of the mushrooms. Add more mushrooms and more oil in the same way until the jar is full, close the lid tightly and keep for at least a month before use. Once opened, a jar should be used up fairly rapidly.

CULTIVATED

Wood blewit (Lepista nuda) Lilac to violet. Chewy substantial, lends itself to frying in butter. Can be frozen, if pre-cooked. Eaten raw it can be mildly toxic, but not when cooked. pounds 2.19 per 100g.

Maitake (Grifola frondosa) Firm and creamy white. Can be sliced and eaten raw, which emphasises its nutty, slightly peppery bite. Or cook it like any other mushroom. pounds 2.19 per 100g.

Shiitake Elegant, uniform, brown-capped mushrooms, with great delicacy of texture and flavour. Again, best fried. pounds 1.59 per100g.

WILD

Chanterelle, also known as Girolles (Cantharellus cibarius). Yellowy frilly, sharp perfume of apricots. A little cream accentuates their sharp flavour. Keeps well (up to five days in vegetable section of fridge). Peppery when raw. Good cooked with scrambled eggs. pounds 2.99 per 125g.

Grey chanterelle (Cantharellus tubaeformis). Similar to the girolles but grey in colour. pounds 2.99 per 125g.

Trompettes de mort (Craterellus cornu- copioides) Charcoal grey. Often dirty, need rinsing. Earthy flavour, provides colour and texture to a dish. pounds 2.99 per 125g.

Pied de mouton (Hydnum repandum) In the UK we call it Hedgehog Fungus after the spiky gills that form between stem and cap. They are edible, but on large specimens you can rub them off. Bland but chewy. Fry or stew with onion. They pickle well. pounds 2.99 per 125g.

Morels (Morchella elata and esculenta) French morilles. One of the great prizes, with strong savoury flavour and perfume. Do not eat raw. Look like phallic toadstools, with honeycombed sponge surface, the spores tucked into the base of these indentations. Often sandy, so brush them or wipe with damp cloth. Dried ones should be soaked for 20 minutes in warm water. Good in creamy sauces; the dried ones are good in stews. pounds 2.99 per 125g.

Porcini (Boletus edulis). French ceps. Chewy, substantial strong, savoury aroma. Excellent for drying and pickling. Tend to produce in warm weather following rain when soil is moist. Fresh ones are not available yet in supermarkets, though dried porcini are.

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