The Shadowy Underworld of Mushrooms

I have written many times about my great-grandmother. She has taught me a great deal about foodstuffs, foraging, preserving, and above all, Provençal lore. She always spoke in our ancient language, and quite often I would have to ask her the meaning of a particular word or expression. It was during our long mushrooms excursions into the wild woods of the Esterel that I have learned about our rich culture…and wild mushrooms.

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During the mushroom season we would wake up at 4am, gather our baskets and walk for a good four or five hours before we’d stop for a bite to eat. I would always bring bread, sausages, salt & pepper and a flask filled with water flavored with mint syrup. I’d make a small fire and grill our sausages on rosemary sticks. Over the break, she would tell me another story about our past and we’d resume our march for another couple of hours. She knew exactly where to go and what to look for.


Mushrooming is a whole lot of fun, a great outdoor day, a chance to communicate with Mother Nature, and teach the young the finer points of fungi. Searching for the little buggers involve an al fresco lunch, fresh air and leg exercise. Mushroom picking varies from country to country (great North American site here). It’s worth noting that the ability to identify, pick & prepare edible mushrooms is usually passed down through generations: I can vouch for that! Below is a pic of mousserons, we must have picked thousands of those and I will reveal my great grandmother’s secrets on how to preserve them in the next diary.

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First, I have to issue this warning: the chemistry of fungi is incredibly complicated. Some species develop dozens of metabolites, some of which are poorly known and could cause exceptionally grave responses such as severe poisoning, shock (low blood pressure) and even angioedema, which can be fatal. Remember that mushrooms are not your “run of the mill food”, but should be treated as condiments. So when picking mushrooms we must be careful and be content with the species best known to us such as morels, ceps & bolets, chanterelles etc…(pic of freshly picked ceps below) What you need to have with you is a list of deadly fungi.

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Mushrooms have two growing seasons, spring and fall. When I resided in California I scoured the Big Bear region in the fall and found my fair share of ceps and morels. I met bewildered folks in the woods asking me why I would play with my life. I usually answered that mushrooms are high in protein. More so by weight, in fact, than any vegetable except soybeans. Mushrooms are also rich in most vitamins, particularly B and C, and contain practically all the major minerals, particularly potassium and phosphorus. So what’s not to like? Check that video about picking ceps, worth watching:

And the following one shows a great looking morel find! I wish I had found that one.

What to do with all those -bought- collected mushrooms? Well, that’s the next diary. Now I have three recipes.

One of the easiest side dish to accompany the main course, be it a fish, meat or vegetable dish is a mushroom flan, flavored with herbes de Provence (note that you can make your own mix, I do).

For 4 persons you will need 300 (10 ounces) grams of your favorite (fresh) mushroom (I would use fresh chanterelles, not too expensive and great flavor), 5 ounces of ricotta cheese (cottage cheese if you can’t find it), 3 whole eggs, 40 grams (1/3 cup) of herbes de Provence, salt & pepper to taste. Preheat your oven to 200C (390F) and slice the mushroom finely. In a salad bowl, beat the eggs, adding the white cheese gradually, then the herbs, salt & pepper. Place the mushroom in four ramekins, pour the mix over and bake for 20 minutes (or golden brown). This can be eaten any time of the day or night, with or without a main course and can be done with just about any mushroom. Chanterelle pic below.

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It’s fall: fancy a Wild Mushroom Risotto? First get hold of Arborio or Carnaroli rice. Though Carnaroli is considered the premium risotto rice as it holds its shape well in cooking, it softens just enough to take up a multitude of flavors. The following recipe is for 8 to 10 persons (leftovers can be served on toast a day later):

2 pounds of mixed mushrooms: oyster, black mushroom, shiitake, chanterelle, ceps (porcini in Italian) and assorted field mushrooms (most good delis & supermarkets sell this sort of mix by the half pound); 4 cups of risotto rice, 6 shallots, finely minced, 6 garlic cloves, finely minced, 1 head of celery, finely chopped up, 4 or 5 ounces of salted butter, 2 pints of low sodium chicken stock, 1 pint of dry white wine (I add a glassful of vermouth to this, it gives it a slight kick); a pinch of cayenne pepper, salt & pepper to taste (I’d stick a fair bit of freshly ground black pepper), and a large handful of flat parsley mixed with a little sage.

I know some people would start this dish with half a glass of extra virgin olive oil but personally I prefer butter, real butter because in the end, you get a richer taste, and if you’re going to spend a few bucks on wild mushrooms, might as well do it in style (or, as my partner would say, go for broke!)

First wash & rinse all fungi. Dry, cut into halves or quarters and set aside. In a large cooking pot, over a medium heat, melt half the butter and throw in the shallots, garlic and celery, stir well and cook until translucent, or about 2 minutes. Add the rice and stir quickly until it is well-coated and opaque. Add the wine, stir and cook until liquid is all absorbed, then pour a cup of chicken stock (vegetable stock if you’re vegetarian) and cook again until well absorbed.

In the meantime, in a medium-sized skillet, melt the other half of the butter. Throw in the mushrooms and sauté them over medium-high heat to soften, 2 to 3 minutes, tops. Set aside.

Keep adding the chicken stock until your rice has reached Nirvana, which should take no longer than 20 minutes, then add the mushrooms, stir carefully as not to break apart the fungi and top with the herb mixture. Stir one more time and promptly serve into bowls. For good measure, if you can procure yourself with a bottle of truffle oil, then pour a little on each of the servings, with the grated cheese of your choice.

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One of our most famous beef stew is Daube de Boeuf Provençale, slow-simmered, mushroom-heavy and traditionally cooked in a special pot called a daubière (see pic below). I don’t have one so I cook mine in a Creuset cast-iron pot. This is hearty dish for a chilly night. The meat must be marinated for at least 12 hours in the refrigerator, or in a cool, dark place. It can be made a couple of days in advance, in fact, like curries, it’s even better reheated. Note that this particular dish was made by my great grandmother using mushrooms she would have herself preserved.

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This is for 6 to 8 persons:

allow 200 grams of beef chunks per persons, 100 grams dried ceps (or porcini), 200 grams of Champignons de Paris, 2 cups of pitted green olives, 2 leeks, minced, 2 or 3 celery sticks, cut in small chunks, 2 large onions, finely minced, 6 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced, 4 carrots, cut into thick slivers (I use my trusty mandoline for that), a pint of tomato passata, 1 liter of good red wine, a large glass of brandy, 4 fluid ounces of olive oil, a bouquet garni (cinnamon stick, orange zest, bay leaf, thyme, parsley, peppercorns, cloves, and celery leaves placed into a single layer of cheesecloth. Tie the cheesecloth up and you have a bouquet garni), a bit of flour, water and salt & pepper to taste.

For the marinade, in a large non-reactive dish gently toss together the leek, celery, onions, garlic, carrots, beef, and bouquet garni. Pour the wine and brandy over the mixture and refrigerate it for 12 to 24 hours.

The next day:
preheat the oven to 325 F. Remove the beef from the vegetables and drain onto clean kitchen towels. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Toss the beef with the flour and brown it for 1 or 2 minutes. Remove the beef from the skillet and deglaze the pan with some of the beef stock and add the tomato passata, scraping up the browned bits from the bottom of the pan.

Combine the beef, pan sauce, all the mushrooms (whole if possible), olives, a little salt, the marinade juices, the vegetable mixture in a large oven proof dish and cover. Braise it for 2 to 3 hours, until the beef is tender. Check from time to time to see if there is too much liquid in the pan about 2 hours into the cooking time. If you want a thicker stew, remove the lid for the remainder of the cooking time.

This is usually served with rice, sometimes the red rice from Camargues, but personally, I much prefer to eat it with butterfly pasta, the way my great grandmother served it. Call me a traditionalist!

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Everything you’ve always wanted to know about the world of mushrooms is to be found on this excellent site, a must for gatherers and cooks alike. I shall post a follow-up to this mushroom piece tomorrow.

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