Saturday the 13th of February 2021
The forest is filled with animals, plants, grasses, herbs and mushrooms. And that’s why I love every native tree growing exactly where it happens to be.
For our forest and winter cuisine, I have chosen three types of mushrooms. Why? Because I know them. Those mushrooms that I don’t really know stay where they are, and I leave them to carry on growing in the forest. They don’t get to see the inside of my kitchen. I’m happy to admit that my knowledge is finite; too many people have paid with their lives for their gluttonous greed, coupled with their ignorance. Frivolity is not my thing. I admire the variety of mushrooms, and I have a deep respect for them. I believe that mushrooms belong to the trees and in nature – and not necessarily in the kitchen, unless I really know how to prepare them. Those that I’m not sure whether they’re edible or not, or if I simply don’t like their taste, are better off staying where they are, on their home ground in the forest or in the meadows. I always identify them on the spot, in the place where they grow, so that I don’t end up taking a forest resource home with me, only to discover in the kitchen that I have to throw some mushrooms away because I’ve picked too many.
Basically, I visit the forest as if it were a shop. We humans have a tendency to buy things and then discard them. I would recommend leaving what you don’t really need. Like this, you are protecting the nature that you will always continue to need in your life. Tomorrow is another day. When foraging for mushrooms in the forest, I am extremely mindful of what I’m doing, only taking what I truly need for a shared meal with friends, leaving all the other mushrooms behind; for mushrooms live in an intimate symbiosis with trees. These are the sugar-providers for the mushrooms. This is why, when you plant trees, they should be paired with suitable mushrooms, creating a mycorrizha, or symbiotic association. This gives the trees a better growth rate, and greater strength. We humans tend to be superficial, to be thoughtless. Watch out! Mushrooms, in the forest and in the kitchen, require care and knowledge. Everything starts here.
So, the three wild mushrooms in my neck of the woods, depending on the season, are:
… the Emperor’s Mushroom, or, to give it its Latin moniker, Amanita caesarea (named after the Roman emperor), is found in the light cork-oak forests around Monchique (southern Portugal), but it can also be found in the still existing mixed forests of the rest of Portugal, which, unfortunately, are gradually becoming few and far between. The underside of the Emperor’s Mushroom displays gills; the top is a bright orangey red. Its round cap can grow up to 15 centimetres in diameter. The Emperor’s Mushroom is a mycorrhizal mushroom, occurring in the company of oaks, beeches, pines and chestnuts. It provides the tree with food and loves to be warm, growing in forest clearings and next to the wild strawberry (medronho) bushes. It grows in fresh soil, ranging from slightly to strongly acidic in quality. The mushrooms appear in the autumn, provided it has been raining sufficiently, followed by a few days of sunshine. While this edible mushroom is not protected in Portugal, it does enjoy special protection under German conservation law and may not be foraged there.
… the Parasol, with the scientific name of Macrolepiota procera, is a giant parasol mushroom, related to our regular cultivated white mushroom. The Common Parasol Mushroom can be found mainly in forests of average age and older. All varieties of the Common Parasol Mushroom are edible and are considered to be excellent food mushrooms. They can even serve as a meat substitute. Normally, you should use only the caps, and you can prepare them just as you would a steak or a cutlet. The stalks are often tough and are not suitable for eating; they may however be turned into mushroom powder. In very rare cases, people have complained of nausea and vomiting after eating the stalks. Once the mushroom has opened, the cap can reach a width of up to 12–30 cm, with a flat raised hump in the centre. The white flesh doesn’t change colour when cut. It has a light mushroomy smell, and tastes slightly of walnuts.
… the Chanterelle, or Cantharellus cibarius, starts to grow with a semi-spherical to domed shape, subsequently turning itself inside out to form a funnel. Chanterelles are mycorrhizal mushrooms, which enter into symbiosis with various conifers and deciduous trees. Their flesh is crisp and firm, their stems tough and stringy, whitish to pale yellow in colour, and with a mild to slightly peppery taste. Fresh specimens have a subtle, fruit-like smell, with a hint of apricot. The copious spores appear as a pale yellow spore powder, measuring 8-10 by 4.5-5.5 micrometres, and have an ellipsoid shape.
My preferred way of enjoying the Emperor’s Mushroom is in its raw state. I carefully clean one to two mushrooms. No water involved! Instead, to clean them, I take a knife and carefully peel off the brown-red-orange skin. I will always smell a mushroom that I want to eat first; I want to know whether it is still in good condition. And the aroma of this mushroom is like a fine perfume. When I’ve finished cleaning the Emperor’s Mushroom, I cut it into thin, delicate slices and spread these out to breathe. Their flesh is beautifully white. Then I wander over to my pepper tree, which I planted many years ago behind the kitchen; fresh pepper enhances the taste of fresh mushrooms. A little Flor de Sal (from Marisol, Olhão) is important too. Also, I always use my own olive-oil; the liquid gold pressed by Senhor Santos Oliveira in Padieiros (Alferce) is the best. It would be even better if it could be made from my own olives. However, that isn’t always possible, as my harvest is rather limited. The olives are mixed, washed and cold-pressed into oil, which I store in a dark glass five-litre bottle to fill my smaller bottles from. A touch of balsamic vinegar and a clove of garlic chopped into very fine slices provide that extra seasoning for the parasol. This will be our starter. Covering the bowl with a cloth, I leave the mushroom to soak for about half an hour in its delicious marinade.
Then I prepare the main course. The parasol is chopped into pieces, as if for a stew. I then take one onion, which I will use as the base for the stew I am going to make in the frying pan. I fry the finely chopped onions in the pan, until they turn a brownish colour. I use either olive-oil or butter: it’s a question of individual taste. The parasol pieces are placed in the pan with the onions to be sautéed. Two mushrooms per person should be sufficient. If you happen to have a sweet potato to hand and a separate frying-pan, you could prepare some roast potatoes or experiment with chestnuts: just make a slight incision and whack them into the oven. All these are very simple ideas that I try out just to vary my day-to-day culinary routine. And how heavenly they taste! This is the main course we’re talking about. At the end of the day, the taste of the parasol will dominate the lunch. To season the roast potatoes, I’ll sometimes use sage; at other times just some rosemary. The sweet roast potatoes turn a golden brown colour. And everything tastes even better because it comes from our own soil.
Much later in the winter, when we already have some warmer days, that’s when the chanterelles arrive. I carefully brush off any soil clinging to them, cutting bits off here and there that I don’t want to entrust to my palate, and then I place the fine mushrooms in a frying-pan with some butter, adding a little salt and pepper. Nothing else. Chanterelles are an alternative to the parasol, so it’s either one or the other… Then I bring a large pot of salted water to the boil and add 500 grams of linguine; the linguine then slowly start to bend. I cook them for ten minutes until they are al dente. Then I place the cooked linguine in a new frying-pan and sauté them, adding oregano, thyme, basil (fresh if possible, also from the garden) and the juice of one lemon. Then we grate hard goat’s cheese (muito curado!); why use parmesan all the way from Italy when we produce the best goat’s cheese in the world right here in the Alentejo? If you’re ever visiting Odemira, head straight for the market and look for the local Caprino brand. Ask for Ana Lúcia Viana. Once you’ve tried this, you’ll never want to eat cheese from Italy or France ever again. We do have all the good things we need to live well in our own country, as long as they have been carefully produced and we know how to appreciate them. Sometimes, I use crushed walnuts instead of grated cheese, which gives the lunch a nutty, creamy flavour. By the way, the walnuts of the Chandler variety from Bragança are the best.
I don’t waste much time with exact quantities. Everyone will know how much is enough. If you are cooking just for yourself, you are treating yourself to a hugely enjoyable mushroom feast. If there are two of you, or if you want to invite friends, you’ll just have to scale up the quantities to fit the number of people. Use as little as possible, keep the quantities low in order to show respect for these gifts of the forest. The three different mushrooms I am writing about here are treated like royalty in my kitchen, and I only use them on very special occasions. What I do cook on a daily basis is my own local produce, which I swear by. On rare occasions, I will open a good bottle of red; there will always be (still) water on the table. For dessert – and a Portuguese meal cannot do without one – we’ll grab a fruit from the garden, an orange for instance, a banana or a pomegranate. So, fare ye well…