23 Nov 2010

La Saison des Champignons (Part 1)

When I recently praised Autumn's cornucopia as the bumper harvest time of the year that will (allegorically) see us through Winter, I meant to include this next element to the list of fruit, vegetables and grains, and then decided to dedicate a whole post just to its pleasures that encompass the delights of a treasure hunt of sorts followed by the satisfaction of a tasty dinner.

But before I end up sounding like the bloke out of River Cottage, just allow me to praise nature's resourcefulness in rewarding us with a produce it nurtures all by itself, without man's intervention: the simple - yet complex - wild mushrooms.

Mushrooms like ceps (porcini), morels, chanterelles, trompettes de la mort (horns of plenty), girolles, puffballs, etc. reward the vegetarians amongst us with a substitute to meat (high protein content), and also satisfy carnivorous appetites by admirably complimenting meat in a white sauce or a rich wine-based jus.

Mushrooms might not pop to the mind of the urbanite (myself included) whose encounter with fungi will rarely err beyond the supermarket's fresh produce aisle, where the cultivated variety (often 'limited' to the widespread white button mushroom or their brown caps counterpart, and produced in huge quantities in Ireland to cater for the UK market) will be neatly presented, packaged up in plastic trays enclosed in cling-film, after a rigorous selection and calibration process.

One piece of advice in passing: once home after purchase, be sure to store them in a paper bag at the bottom of the fridge, rather than keep them in their plastic packaging. Failing that, at least remove the cling film to help the mushrooms breathe.

Now back to our subject matter, mushrooms of the wild order: they come in an array of calibres, shapes, colours, patterns and... toxicity levels. Hence the fact that amateur mycologists are strongly advised to only forage under the safety umbrella of a mycological society who are experts and conoisseurs. If not, the least you can do safety-wise is to take your pickings to a pharmacist who should be able to help you identify the safe edible specimens from the rogues! I cannot emphasise enough that the toxicity risk needs to be assessed very seriously indeed as a matter of life and death.

Oh and I won't even mention magic mushrooms, that some members of society seem to pride themselves in identifying as experts in their field, yet of course not for the same enjoyment purposes as our average mushroom gourmet here... (to be continued)

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