Fungus while it lasts
Chef Andrea Fraire is smiling: 'It rained in Italy!' The new chef de cuisine at Grissini Grand Hyatt is relieved because rain in his native Piedmont means there are fresh porcini for his seasonal menu Parlando Di Funghi (Speaking of Mushrooms) and 10 delicious dishes are available, featuring fresh porcini harvested in Italy only one or two days ago.
Porcini (little pig) is the Italian name for the Boletus edulis, a wild mushroom found in forests across the northern hemisphere. Known by many names, including cepe de Bordeaux in France, king bolete and white (or noble) mushroom in Russia, it is one of the most sought after fungi and is found for less than two months each year.
Wild mushrooms need a combination of specific types of trees, and rain or damp followed by warm days. Fraire prefers to source his 'treasures' from the forested hills of northern Italy.
To savour all the subtleties of the porcini mushroom, Fraire recommends the whole porcini baked in a foil parcel with just rosemary, a little garlic and taggiasca olive oil. 'Simple cooking is all that is required with porcini as it is such a good product,' says Fraire.
All kinds of wild mushrooms are enjoyed in Italian and French cuisine; in fine dining restaurants they are a luxury ingredient. At Pierre restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong, Boletus edulis are known by their French name, 'cepes', and are joined on the plate by trompette de mort, pied de mouton and button mushrooms.
Across continental Europe collecting mushrooms is seen as an outdoor activity, akin to fishing or hunting game and birds - something you do with friends or family in autumn.
In Russia especially, mushroom hunting is a national passion. 'We call mushrooms the meat of the forest,' says Irina Ustyogova from Moscow, a teacher at the Russian Language Centre in Sheung Wan. Ustyogova talks fondly of mushroom hunting with her parents and grandparents, who shared their love of mushrooms and taught her which were safe to collect.
'In summer, Russian city dwellers want to spend as much time in the countryside as possible,' she says. Her family would head to their dacha (second home) in the country every weekend and holiday and, when conditions were right, go mushroom hunting in the forest.
She recalls how everyone wore their oldest clothes, hats and boots to protect themselves from the insects and branches when scrambling in the forest. Other essential items are a big stick for foraging, a wicker basket, a sharp knife and, ideally, a dog for protection or maybe for helping you find your way home.
It seems the biggest danger to Russian mushroom hunters, however, is not poisoning but simply getting lost in the forest. Unlike Italy, Russia is having a bumper harvest and more than 300 people have been reported missing in the forests of the Leningrad oblast (administrative region) so far this season.
'The white mushroom [Boletus edulis] is the most precious you can find in the forests near Moscow,' says Ustyogova. Birch boletes (Leccinum scabrum) and honey fungus (Armillaria mellea) are also treasured, although the latter must be cooked thoroughly as they are mildly poisonous when raw. Ustyogova's grandmother cooked all the meals at the family dacha, boiling the mushrooms for two hours before eating.
After a mushroom hunting trip, the family would gather to feast on some of their harvest and swap tales about how they found the biggest and best mushrooms. A traditional dish of fried mushrooms and potatoes called Zharekha was a family favourite.
Ustyogova's grandmother would also pickle mushrooms to brighten the family's table during the winter. 'We serve them on small plates with onions and sour cream,' says Ustyogova. Mushrooms were also preserved by hanging them on threads to dry on the verandah outside the dacha.
As the wild mushroom season comes to an end, dried mushrooms are often the only option for chefs and home cooks worldwide. British culinary diva Delia Smith once described dried mushrooms as 'one of the best ingredients to hit British food shops in the past century', but in gourmet delis and supermarkets everywhere the quality varies enormously from shards to plump little treasures. Some are close in size to fresh mushrooms when rehydrated and provide a burst of umami and depth of flavour.
Hong Kong entrepreneur, Tom Folinsbee identified a demand for high-quality dried wild mushrooms and now imports mushrooms harvested from the remote and pristine forests of the west coast of Canada.
His company Wild Gourmet brings dried morels, chanterelles, matsutakes (also known as pine mushrooms), lobster mushrooms plus various bolete mushrooms, to Hong Kong where they are sold to top restaurants and hotels. 'Morels are the most popular by far, followed by chanterelles,' he says.
The mushrooms are collected by a team of professional mushroom harvesters, some of whom were Folinsbee's high-school friends. A chance meeting with his old friends a few years ago introduced the then stockbroker to their world of wild mushrooms, and the high prices paid in the gourmet world.
The North American mushroom season starts in Alaska and goes down the Pacific coast to Guatemala. 'It's all about temperature and rainfall,' says Folinsbee. And for morels, it's about fire - they only grow after forest fires.
The mushroom harvesters hunt the mushrooms by following weather patterns and maps of forest fires, waiting for the right conditions to occur in places they know have produced good 'fruitings' (fungi growth) before.
Mushroom sightings are often a one or two-day drive away from urban areas. The mushroom harvesters travel all over the forests of British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Yukon Territory, setting up camp in the wilds. It may sound like every red-blooded Canadian's idea of an awesome vacation, but mushroom hunting is not without personal risk for the harvesters.
Folinsbee says there's no danger of a professional harvester picking or eating a poisonous mushroom; the danger is from bears. Time is everything, so when vehicles need repairs or fuel, and supplies need to be bought for especially long trips, Folinsbee is likely to wire money to the harvesters in advance to ensure they get the best mushrooms.
When mushrooms are found, the team springs into action, and harvests 22kg to 45kg of mushrooms a day, working as long as there is daylight, which can be 12 to 18 hours in northern Canada. The mushrooms are air dried at camp on the spot to maintain their shape as much as possible.
Harvesting complete, the mushrooms are taken back to a professional drying facility where they are flash dried in specialist ovens. This is done to kill off any insect larvae and reduce water before being shipped to Hong Kong.
Wild Gourmet's mushrooms are snapped up mostly by restaurant distributors, the only retailer stocking them is Henry Theil of the TC Deli Shop and Lardos restaurant. Folinsbee is confident in the provenance of his mushrooms and the pristine environment in which they grow. 'It's a wild product and that is reflected in the pure taste.'
This dish is adapted from a recipe by food blogger Elina on Russian Bites. Mushroom fan Irina Ustyogova says it resembles a dish her family calls zharekha and often eat after collecting mushrooms.
Potatoes with mushrooms
3 medium potatoes
250 grams mushrooms - a mix of Swiss brown, oyster mushrooms and 30 grams of dried porcini rehydrated and drained
50 grams butter
2 tbsp vegetable oil
Salt and pepper
1 tbsp sour cream (optional)
- Peel potatoes, cut into thin chips.
- Slice mushrooms, melt butter, saute mushrooms for 10 minutes until all moisture is released. Remove from pan and set aside.
- Add vegetable oil to pan and increase heat to maximum. When oil is hot, add potatoes and stir-fry for five minutes. Lower heat to medium, fry for five minutes, put lid on and cook for 10 more minutes or until cooked through, add a little water (or liquid from soaking dried mushrooms) if needed to create steam in pan to cook potatoes.
- When potatoes are cooked, add cooked mushrooms to the pan and heat through with a little salt and pepper and (and dill if you like).
- Add sour cream (optional).
- Serve with pickled vegetables.