Mushrooms Mean Fall
Fall is mushroom season, the time when, with rain, the forest floors of Northern California come alive with fungi and foragers with baskets spread out across the landscape to gather the edible wild porcini, chanterelles, candy caps, matsutake and dozens more. They assiduously avoid the Destroying Angel, Amanita phalloides, which can be deadly, along with other mushrooms known to be toxic, if not deadly.
With the prospect of an El Nino on the horizon, fall 2015 may bring in a bumper crop to our region.
Cultivated mushrooms such as button, portabello and shiitake are widely available all year long, but fall nevertheless seems like the right time to cook with them and I often combine them with wild mushrooms. Shiitakes, which are native to East Asia, have an intense umami flavor, meaty and earthy, that, even though they are cultivated, gives them a hint of the wild.
I recently had a shiitake experience in a most unexpected setting: the Chateau Volan in France.
Valerie Seneclauze lives with her husband and children in the 11th-century chateau, which has been in her husband’s family for more than 100 years. Located on a rocky promontory above the Rhone River in the Department of the Loire, the chateau can only be reached by a narrow road that climbs high above the medieval village of Malleval and the river below.
I had been told by a French acquaintance that Valerie not only ran a chambre d’hote—bed and breakfast, plus dinner—but raised shiitake mushrooms, and that I should expect to sample some at dinner. Valerie, she said, was known as “a good cooker.”
Nevertheless, my friend and I weren’t prepared for the three- course extravaganza we were served in the rather grand yet comfortable dining room, just the two of us at a long table set with heavy silver and crystal. Our first course was roasted shiitake mushrooms stuffed with local escargot and accompanied by a cup of frothy “shiitake cappuccino.” The flavors were intense, but not overpowering. This was followed by grilled squab with shiitake and red wine sauce, and dessert was a fruit, gateau and cream combination worthy of a Michelin-starred restaurant.
The next morning Valerie took us to visit the ancient caves of the chateau, which she has turned into mushroom production rooms. “When we moved here eight years ago,” she explained, “I knew I wanted to do something with all these old caves, and I thought ‘Why not mushrooms ?’—but not the usual mushrooms, something exotic.’”
She pulled open a heavy wooden door and led us into a long stone cave, dimly lit with neon lights running along the sides of the vaulted room where hundreds of shiitake mushrooms sprouted on whitish, spore-filled straw cubes. The cubes were lined up on tables that spanned the cave from one end to the other, with just enough room for a person to pass between them.
“The mushrooms grow very well in these humid caves,” Valerie said, and she led us through two more similar ones before taking us to her store—once the stable—where she sells pickled and fresh shiitakes along with homemade preserves.
Valerie and her mushrooms have also made inroads into the French restaurant world in and around Lyon, which is no small achievement in a region thick with wild mushrooms. Star chefs order her shiitakes by the kilos, and more are coming to her each day.
So, even though fall is wild mushroom season, we can always turn to cultivated shiitakes for a rich taste of the forest, and avoid the potential pitfalls of mushroom foraging.
An excellent book on the subject is The Wild Mushroom Cookbook—Recipes from Mendocino by Alison Gardener and Merry Winslow. They are extremely knowledgeable, wonderful cooks and have been known to lead mushroom hunting tours.
NOTE: Under no circumstances should anyone gather wild mushrooms for eating unless accompanied by an expert. Many wild mushrooms are deadly, while others can cause severe illness.
WHAT'S IN SEASON
in Marin, Napa and Sonoma countries
SEPTEMBER, OCTOBER, NOVEMBER
Pumpkins and other