Home cooks are branching out from simple button mushrooms to Girolles, Chanterelles, Shiitake and Pied de Mouton. The results are delicious – and even more so if you forage your own, discovers Ellen Manning I’ve wandered obliviously past the “Jelly Ears” without even noticing them when professional forager James Wood suddenly stops and holds aloft the strange, jelly-like fungi. Glistening, wobbly and looking uncannily like a tiny mouse’s ear, they’re about as far from the average button mushroom as you can get. Our age-old fascination with mushrooms isn’t just continuing, but growing day by day. So much so that the health food chain Whole Foods has included mushrooms in its list of predicted food trends of 2018. “Functional mushrooms”, to be precise, which it says are “traditionally used to support wellness as an ingredient in dietary supplements”. That means they could be making an appearance in anything from bottled drinks, coffees, smoothies and teas to soaps and hair care. But while these unusual applications may grow in popularity, mushrooms aren’t showing any sign of disappearing from our plates, where they already put in regular appearances. No longer the preserve of vegetarian cuisine or the sidelined to the classic garlic mushroom starter, they are increasingly becoming the stars of the show.A classic ingredientWith that in mind, it’s no surprise that the mushroom is the latest subject of a series of books by Krug champagne, each focusing on a single ingredient, complete with recipes created by some of the world’s culinary bigwigs. These experts include the Michelin-starred chef Glynn Purnell, who is with us as we forage for mushrooms to talk about exactly what the fascination is with mushrooms – and specifically with picking our own in the UK’s woodlands. For Purnell, it’s no wonder that mushrooms have been top of the list for people all over the world for decades. “Mushrooms are one of those fantastic classic ingredients, they’ve been used for centuries,” he says. “Ingredients do have their time, when they suddenly become fashionable, but I think mushrooms have always been fashionable.” They may have always been fashionable in the kitchens of top chefs who know how to source and use some of the rarer types, but Purnell says that the ready availability of some more unusual species of fungus on supermarket shelves, together with the growing fashion of foraging, is helping raise the mushroom’s profile. In one breath, he reels off a list of mushrooms that you can easily get your hands on, from Girolles and Chanterelles to Shiitake and Pied de Mouton.Pick your ownIt’s a diversity that Wood, who founded Totally Wild UK, a group of foraging and wild food specialists, thinks plays a part in the continuing popularity of mushrooms. “There’s a lot more depth to mushrooms. People are starting to understand that what we used to see as a mushroom was probably a simple button mushroom,” he tells me. “Then supermarkets introduced all sorts of other types of mushrooms and people are getting more and more excited by these more obscure ones.” Added to that, the fact you can go and find these obscure mushrooms on your own doorstep, whether that’s in the countryside or a more urban setting, is keeping people’s love of mushroom alive, he thinks. Wood, who regularly guides people on foraging trips, has noticed a steady growth in people’s interest not only in buying mushrooms, but finding them themselves. “There’s something fascinating in the fact you might not necessarily be able to get that particular mushroom anywhere else,” says Wood. “You have picked it in the wild. People like the fact that picking mushrooms is a traditional skill and they have picked it themselves, they are involved. Suddenly dinner has got a story.” It’s safe to say, amateur as I am, that without guidance I would have missed half of our spoils from the woodland south of Birmingham where we are foraging. The Jelly Ears are just one of the finds, alongside Turkey Tails and Glistening Ink Caps.‘Don’t eat this’
There are even a few Wood can’t identify, that are carefully put in the “don’t eat this” basket. This, he believes, is part of the fascination. “People always ask, ‘is this poisonous?’ or ‘what would happen if you ate this?’, adds Wood. “I think people are fascinated because they think it’s a bit dangerous.” But for many people the love of mushrooms picked from the environment around us is about provenance, as they seek food that isn’t mass-produced and lining supermarket shelves. “There’s a percentage of people who don’t care – who pick up, say, processed meat and just carry on,” says Purnell. “But there are a lot of people who are more interested now in where their food comes from, how it’s reared, how it’s grown.” That interest comes with a willingness to try the weird and wonderful mushrooms that are increasingly available. “It’s great that people are getting more interested,” says Purnell. “Because of my style of cooking, people seem a bit more adventurous when they come to see me anyway, but I think it’s getting easier because people know about ingredients, they read a menu and they’re not bamboozled.” But he admits that can bring its own challenge: “They are more educated and know more. It’s a double-edged sword. Chefs have always got to be one step ahead.”Making the ordinary extraordinaryThat interest and openness to experimentation takes people beyond “standard mushroom protocol” of frying them in butter to more avant garde ways of eating them. He’s tried all sorts, from infusing vodka with different fungi, from chanterelles to Beefsteak fungus, which turns it pink, to “Birch Polypore mushroom marmalade”, which he says looks and tastes just like the real thing yet contains no orange at all. Then there are his much-loved Jelly Ears, which can be frozen and transformed into sweets. “Obviously you have got the standard – you can pick a mushroom, fry it in garlic and it will taste delicious. But this is what excites me, these quirky things are pushing the boundaries.” The idea of making the ordinary mushroom extraordinary is behind the Krug Single Ingredient campaign that Purnell has taken part in. His dish, “It’s A Bit Tight In Here, There’s Not Mush-Room!” showcases the mushroom as the star of the show. “It’s got so many different flavours and textures, I can’t see why it can’t be the star of the dish,” he says. “To be brave and use that ingredient as the mainstay of the dish is a bit risque, but the mushroom can look out for itself.” It sure can.