The British fascination with fungi: The magic of the curry mushroom

There's a hot new ingredient being sought out by foodies this autumn. It's spicy, it's exotic, and it grows on the cool, damp forest floors of... Scotland. By Terry Kirby
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The Independent Online

It ranks up there with the odder-sounding combinations of the culinary world, alongside bacon and egg ice-cream or strawberries with balsamic vinegar. But now, the curry mushroom from Scotland could be about to storm the nation's taste buds.

Unlike entirely artificial creations, such as chicken tikka masala, which panders to the British addiction to Indian dishes, the curry mushroom is an entirely natural food, growing wild in many places around the UK.

Until recently, the small, brown but potent-tasting curry-scented milkcap, or Lactarius camphoratus, was regarded as little more than a curiosity by mushroom foragers. Now, however, it is to be collected and sold commercially for the first time by a Scottish company specialising in foods gathered from the wild.

Liz Walsh, director of Glasgow-based Wildfoods, said: "We believe we are the first company to sell the curry-scented milk-cap commercially. It is a fascinating natural food that really does smell and taste of curry and grows alongside many other mushrooms in the wonderful forests we have here in Scotland. We strongly believe there could be an excellent market for it out there among food lovers."

As the mushroom season gets into full swing, the marketing of the curry-scented milkcap underlines the nation's growing fascination with all things fungal. Increasing numbers of people are joining organised mushroom forays in parks and woods this autumn, while the nation's cooks, both amateur and professional, are waking up to the culinary potential of mushrooms. Many have been inspired by the efforts of enthusiasts such as Antonio Carluccio and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

Food lovers see wild foods, particularly fungi, as a natural next step after embracing the organic movement, putting Britons on a par with many other parts of Europe, particularly Italy, France and Poland, where the gathering and cooking of wild mushrooms is a common family event at this time of year.

Ms Walsh stressed that since the vast majority of fungi and other wildfoods supplied by her company were gathered from land that had never been cultivated, they were free from pesticides or other possible sources of contamination.

The company believes the curry mushroom has many potential uses for imaginative cooks, especially as an addition to Indian-style dishes, such as vegetable curries. (Mushroom curry, made using normal mushrooms, is a popular authentic Indian dish.) It could also be used as a spicy condiment or to add a touch of heat to more conventional mushroom dishes, such as risotto or pasta sauces.

Wildfoods sell curry mushrooms at £10 for 250 grams. They also sell both fresh and dried mushrooms, wild herbs and leaves and exotic seaweeds, all by mail order over the internet. Although it specialises in native Scottish foods, Wildfoods also sells unusual spices such as wattleseed and pepper berries from Australia.

The curry mushroom , which grows singly among the vegetation on forest floors, has a strong smell and taste that is reminiscent of the spice combinations commonly used in Indian cookery, involving such ingredients as coriander, cumin, turmeric, ginger and chilli. Curiously, the natural world has also created the "curry leaf" a bay-like plant that grows throughout parts of south-east Asia and has a distinctive, although much milder, curry aroma and flavour. Although it is not included in most traditional Indian spice mixes, it is often used to add flavour to some dishes.

The curry mushroom is a member of a group of fungi, known as the milkcaps because of the white "milky" sap that exudes from underneath their caps. Most are edible, although only the saffron milkcap has any culinary cachet.

The curry-scented milkcap is just one of several milkcaps that offer unusual flavours and which have been hitherto unexplored by cooks. Some taste strongly of aniseed and coconut, while the woolly milkcap delivers a sharp, very hot taste, reminiscent of some types of radish. Others are bitter, but not poisonous.

Although neglected in Britain, the strong and unusual flavour of milkcaps is prized in parts of eastern Europe, particularly Poland, where they are often picked in the autumn and pickled for the Christmas season.

Peter Marren, a naturalist and mushroom expert, said he was pleased to see the curry milkcap being made more widely available to consumers. "It seems pretty widespread around the country, but its precise distribution is not that well known, simply because there are not that many people who can recognise it. Only a minority of milkcaps are considered to be good edible ones, although many are popular in eastern Europe. I think that many of those people who now live in Britain might prove good customers for the curry-scented milkcap."

Exactly how the mushroom comes to have a curry flavour remained a mystery, he said, as it didn't seem to act as a deterrent to predators. "It certainly doesn't seem to prevent it being eaten by maggots, slugs or snails.''

All wild mushrooms can, of course, be gathered for free, if you know where to look. But despite the growing interest in Britain, many people, lacking the folklore handed down through generations elsewhere in Europe, remain nervous about eating wild mushrooms. Hence the popularity of cultivated mushrooms sold in supermarkets.

Although expert mycologists can identify most of the estimated 6,000 different species which can be found in Britain, amateurs are encouraged to join officially organised trips so that they can learn to distinguish harmless and edible fungi from the small number of poisonous species, such as the fly agaric - easily recognised by its red and white spotted cap - and the death cap, which is so anonymous that it often ends up in collector's baskets by mistake. Wildfoods uses its own professional foragers to search for its mushrooms to ensure that they are all safe.

According to Andy Fraser, managing director of Caledonian Wildfoods, the parent company of Wildfoods, which supplies chefs and the catering industry with wild fungi, the milkcaps are themselves only part of the exotic landscape that greets him on his foraging trips.

"I never fail to be surprised by what I find. The range of textures, tastes and smells among fungi is astonishing. You could search for a lifetime and always find something different. I've been doing this for four years and I found two today I'd never seen before, the orange-peel fungi and the beefsteak fungus. No one really knows how many species there are out there," he said.

Around the country, the Association of British Fungus Groups holds mushrooming forays during the autumn and runs an identification service. Other organisations involved in the countryside are also catching on, and this year the National Trust is running an extended programme of mushroom-spotting.

Katherine Hearn, the trust's nature conservation adviser, said: "Fungi forays appeal to all ages as a great outdoor pursuit, but they have an important conservation role to play too, providing the trust and other leading conservation bodies with essential research material, whether provided by mycologists or members of the public.

"These amazing organisms are critical to the healthy functioning of our land - farmland, nature reserves, soils, grasses, trees, rare orchids - as hundreds of life-forms depend upon this underground fungal network."

Andy Fraser, a microbiology graduate, points out that the world's largest organism is a fungus in California, whose underground presence has been genetically tracked over hundreds of miles. For him, the curry mushroom is another example of nature's diversity. "We hope people will like it, because it's not something they are going to find on their supermarket shelves. People should not be astonished about it. When you have fungi that taste like bread, smell like apricots or look exactly like a piece of steak, why should we be surprised about a mushroom that tastes of curry?"

Six other fruits of the autumn forest

Ceps, or porcini

The rare and expensive truffle aside, ceps are considered the pick of wild mushrooms. Growing mostly near beech trees on the edge of woodland, their presence is often signalled by the poisonous red and white spotted fly agaric. Ceps have a firm, meaty texture, a strong nutty taste and are excellent with all types of dishes. Can also be dried.

Angel wings

Angel wings grow in brilliant white clusters and thrive on dead wood on forest floors, where they look like unexpected drifts of snow around old tree stumps. They prefer cooler climates and are abundant in Scotland. They have a delicate flavour and can be used in dishes which require mushroom mixes, such as risottos or pasta sauces.

Orange birch bolete

With its distinctive white speckled stem and orange cap, this firm mushroom is found usually growing on its own or in small groups around birch trees. The most impressive specimens can reach 25cm in height. Extremely good for soups and sauces, it is considered a good "bulking" mushroom, rather than one for individual consumption. While the caps are meaty, the stem is too fibrous for most tastes.

Pied de mouton

A small, firm, pale mushroom, usually found on its own rather than in groups. It has a good strong mushroom taste and can be used in a number of different dishes, chopped and pan-fried. The name means "lamb's foot" in English, and refers to the shape of its cap. Its other name, "hedgehog" refers to the spines on the underside. These have a bitter taste, and should be removed before cooking.

Chicken of the woods

This strange-looking honeycomb fungus grows from late spring to early autumn in overlapping layers on living trees such as oak, sweet chestnut and yew. When cooked, it is said to resemble the texture of chicken meat, and makes a good vegetarian substitute. Has a slightly bitter taste, removed by blanching for two or three minutes before cooking. Should not be eaten raw.

Chanterelles

Bright-yellow chanterelles, or girolles, grow in groups in damp, deciduous woodlands, clustered around tree roots and on mossy banks. They have a distinctive apricot smell and fluted shap, but they are tougher than they look and among foodies' most prized mushrooms. Can be eaten raw or fried with butter, garlic and parsley, or served as a side dish, particularly with fish.

Wild mushroom and potato curry

SERVES 4

Ingredients:

200g assorted wild mushrooms, preferably the "meatier" ones such as porcini and/or other boletes, cut into chunks

200g curry-scented milkcap mushrooms, blanched briefly and halved.

250g waxy potatoes, diced

3 tbsp peanut oil

1 tsp dried fenugreek leaves

1 onion, finely chopped

2 tsp finely chopped garlic

1 tsp finely chopped fresh ginger

l tomato, chopped

2 tbsp chopped fresh coriander

1 tsp chilli powder

1 tsp ground turmeric

1 tsp salt, or to taste

Half a cup hot water

12 tsp garam masala

Method:

Heat the oil in a saucepan, add the fenugreek leaves, then the onion and fry until soft and golden. Stir in the garlic, ginger, tomato and coriander leaves and cook, stirring, for two minutes. Add the chilli powder, turmeric, salt and hot water. Bring to the boil, then stir in mushrooms and diced potatoes. Cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes are tender (salad potatoes such as Charlotte are ideal). The spicing might need to be adjusted, depending on the heat of the milkcaps. Sprinkle with garam masala and serve with Indian bread and/or rice, or as a side dish to a main course.

Adapted from The Curry Cookbook, by Charmaine Solomon

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