A curiously unappealing word, fungus tends to conjure images of strange foot rashes, odd diseases and unlikely things growing in the dark. All very unpleasant until you think of mushrooms, a delicious food unlike any other fruit or vegetable we eat, in that it doesn’t need sun to grow and, instead, thrives in dark, moist places. Without seeds, mushrooms grow from microscopic spores, often found in and around the base of trees, in forests and on damp logs.
If we’re being technical, a mushroom is the fruit of a particular fungus called mycelium, an underground root system that can be very extensive, the only visible signs of its existence are the mushrooms popping out of the ground. Once they appear, they tend to grow very quickly – living fast and dying young.
In NSW, an abundance of pine mushrooms generally appear from late February until about April, and they’re found, not surprisingly, in and around pine trees. The two main varieties are the saffron milk cap, a lovely orange mushroom with a firm texture and almost woody flavour, and the slippery jack, which, as its name suggests, is a softer, almost slimy, mushroom.
Hunting for wild mushrooms – always advisable to go with an expert – you’ll find that they tend to appear post-rain and when the sun comes out. Humans, of course, have learnt that the spores can also be collected and cultivated, allowing us to grow mushrooms in indoor farms that mimic forest-like conditions.
Meat for vegetarians
I’m not sure why, but this phrase has always bothered me – I know it kind of makes sense, as mushrooms are high in protein, but it reeks of some vegetable campaign out to sell us mushrooms by convincing us they’re something they’re not. However, in saying that, try deep-frying a shiitake and you’ll find it tastes almost bacon-like.
Personally, I came to mushrooms late; for a long time I was a little disinterested in them. That was until I was converted by two particular dishes – both of them on the menu when I worked at Billy Kwong [in Sydney].
The first, a long-time staple on the menu, was a simple stir-fried mushroom dish with garlic, ginger, shallots, a splash of Shaoxing, lots of white pepper and an array of fresh mushrooms. Grown in an old train tunnel in Mittagong by a guy called Noel Arnold, they were a mix of beautiful shiitake, oyster and shimeji mushrooms, still in large clumps, looking pre-historic and slightly alien-like. The dish was finished with a handful of cloud-ear fungus, a seaweed-esque mushroom with a slightly squeaky texture. The result? A bowl of rich chewy textures, firm and delicious.
The other dish was a delicate salad of finely sliced button mushrooms, shallots and mint, simply dressed with olive oil and lemon juice. I was converted by two very different dishes that highlighted the flavours and versatility of mushrooms.
The prized porcini
Porcini (or ceps as the French call them) are a particular European mushroom found near oak trees; they're elusive and delicious, with a rich earthy flavour. They have a low water content, making them ideal for drying, as rehydrating still retains the strong umami flavour that makes a mushroom special.
Porcini weren’t found growing wild in Australia until recently, when some were discovered in the Adelaide Hills. The urban myth is that there was a chef who spent time tripping through the forest, scattering dried porcini under the oak trees in the hopes that some of the spores would catch and grow. More likely, however, is that the spores have been laying dormant in the roots of the oaks and, for some reason, the conditions are only now ideal for them to grow.
Beware of the magic ones…
Mushroom hunting can be a dangerous sport, with so many highly poisonous varieties. To the untrained eye, innocuous-looking types can actually be fatal. Then there are magic mushrooms, a type of mushroom that contains psilocybin, a strong psychedelic drug that can cause, among other things, strong hallucinations. Let this be a lesson: when foraging for mushrooms, you could either have a tasty meal, poison people so badly they die, or have a very serious drug experience.
Photography by Benito Martin. Styling by Lynsey Fryers. Food preparation by Suresh Watson.