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Describing mushrooms

Describing mushrooms

Hard to do, even for a mushroom girl


I was caught off guard on a Monday morning after a big week end, too early for my head to be functioning in full gear, bombarded with questions about mushrooms.  Granted, this should be familiar territory.  But it wasn’t about how they grow, how to pick them or even how to cook them, this journalist wanted key descriptors, a few ‘best’ adjectives to describe them all physically and flavour-wise.


As a cook who is in love with my olfactory senses, and a slave to them, this kind of thing is right up my alley and usually my strong suit. But obviously I’m no good at putting that across at 10am, and when it comes to shrooms, perhaps not at all anymore. 


You see, I’ve been up to my ears in mushrooms now for months, my fingernails a stained brown, my head swimming in clouds of their aromas as they got wiped down, dried and/or cooked day after day after day.  So completely immersed in mushrooms, it seems I’ve lost all reference points.  After processing two hundred or five hundred pounds of a certain type, you get to know it intimately, and so a chanterelle smells and tastes like a chanterelle, a pied de mouton like a pied de mouton, a bolet jaune like a bolet jaune.


When these mushrooms were new to me, I was struck by their particular personality traits, comparing them to something else I knew better, say vanilla or butter or maple syrup or almonds in flavour, or like eggplant or beef in texture.  Similarly, I used to describe sweetgrass as being reminiscent of vanilla bean, almond paste and freshly mown hay; whereas now when I come across anything with the active ingredient coumarin, it shouts ‘sweetgrass’ to me, because that is my new reference point.  Bitter almond smells like sweetgrass and not the other way around, and Tonka bean smells like sweetgrass on top of layers of coffee and fruit. Pink peppermints smell and taste like wintergreen.  And so an oak barrel can smell like a cèpe to me.


It depends on reference points.  Does lovage remind you of celery or vice versa?  With licorice - does fennel, star anise, Pernod or a childhood candy come first?  It comes down to which form you met as a young one, when a lasting connection was struck - a neural pathway etched out, followed by what you have around you all the time, that nourishes and nuances that engraved network.


We all have our ways (our firsts, our neural pathways, our individual reference points and patterns of taste buds), and on top of that, nature does not deliver constants (hence the magic!).  It’s natural to assume that a carrot is a carrot and an oyster mushroom is an oyster mushroom - but no, and never.  How we interpret an ingredient or sensation is personal and always evolving. 


Thank God for the seasons; they make it more difficult to stereotype or get in a rut.  As the first of each species comes into season, I am excited and alert to the aromas; rediscovering them annually.  And there are variations from year to year, so I pick up on the difference.  The Bolet à Pied Rouge are less fruity this year, more chocolately once dried.  The Polypores are less fresh melon, more savoury corn and chicken, be it in the pan or dried.  But the truth is, most of them fall into their regular frame quick enough and I forget about them as a novelty, they are themselves again.  Only a little less or more so than last year.  A carrot is a carrot and a mushroom is a mushroom, more or less.  Chop, chop.


I forget when I stopped tasting mushrooms as intensely and objectively, or like a normal person, like I’ve forgotten so many things I thought I would never forget, no matter how important they once seemed in understanding the world.  It’s tricky to explain how to multiply or divide when you are decades out of school, or how to put in words the feel of a pan or oven or custard that is at that optimal temperature, when you’re not on the line.  What was a Coprin or Lactaire like before I was so familiar with them?   


I can imagine a seasoned wine taster not necessarily stopping to notice the grassy, citrus and pee notes in a certain white, his/her mind immediately leaping ahead to the sum of its parts, to a Loire Sauvignon blanc.  A tradesman will instinctively tell you a motor is broken or a structure is unsound without necessarily being able to delineate the cues or express his thought process.  Herein lies the difference a wine critic and a wine drinker, or between a talented tradesmen and a talented teacher in the same domain.


Anyhow, if I want to talk mushrooms with anyone who isn’t living mushrooms like I do, I need to be able to offer up more than ‘very bolet’ as commentary.  Especially that beyond the odd old European country hermit, such a person is quite rare, much scarcer than wine connoisseurs in these parts for sure.  So, I have to keep looking back and maintain reference points that allow me to communicate with normal people  And journalists.


I have taught before, I am a critical thinker, I have attuned taste buds, I should be able to do all of this. When I cook something up, or anything wafts by me, I perk up, exclaiming that I’m catching a whiff of this or that.  I notice scents more than anyone, so it’s not that my senses are dull.  It’s just that when it comes to mushrooms, I’ve become saturated and acclimatized, even nonchalant surrounded by such preciousness.  Not to mention that I’m always preoccupied with all that has to be done, so not sitting around pontificating about aroma profiles as much as I would like.


So, maybe it was time to take a time-out.  Feeling like I should do some grounding, I looked back at a few scribbles I had jotted down in my journal in previous years (back when I religiously did that sort of thing).  I pulled down all my jars of dried mushrooms and got to sniffing.  I sizzled up a few fresh batches of assorted mushrooms and paid close attention - smelling, tasting, thinking.  I agreed with my prior assessments, with a few qualifying notes or question marks to add.  For the varieties I had no notes for, I concentrated on evaluating them anew, determining what their principal characteristics were, searching for any flavours or aromas that jumped out at me. I had a hard time.  And it was late in the day, I was at my best, no excuses.  Dissecting the pied bleu, for instance, I found it very mushroomy, a strong mushroom on the scale of mushrooms; it is earthy and nutty (but c’mon Nancy, they all are), but this one is more so.  And not nutty like the delicate almond in a pleurote or a chanterelle, but deeply nutty like a walnut (bitter?).  It smells peppery; is it vegetal peppery or spicy peppery – both it seems.  It definitely tastes meaty.  Can I not come up with better, more precise adjectives? Geez. 


For the record, all mushrooms I taste, I automatically rate in degree of mushroom flavour (delicate to strong: bland like a button mushroom to very potently mushroomy for mushroom lovers only), and then note the accompanying aromas and flavour notes in parallel. Of course woodsy, earthy and nutty recur; sometimes fruity and floral elements too - this is forest floor territory after all, terroir.  In drying, sweetish, lactic, caramelized odours push forward (vanilla, coconut, moka, chocolate, maple, butter).  All this is normal, and so many of them have varying degrees of all these, but then always something else that is unique.  Hard to put your finger on, like nothing else.  Try to describe a truffle, and plus, every specimen is different.  Mushrooms are complex.  Like wines again, a bit from the fruit, a bit from the ground, the trees, the weather, the harvesting and of course the subsequent manipulation. 


Hedgehogs or Armillaires are the best example of cooking changing everything, of special treatment being key. They both need to be cooked slowly (not sautéed over a high flame) to be good; with Armillaires or Lobster mushrooms, you need to add water or liquid, a braisé is best. Otherwise, you will not get any of those incredible aromas.  And for many of the boletes, you only coax them out in drying, and for coprins, in long cooking.  Some freeze well, most don’t; most dry well, some don’t.


I know there is a lot to learn about mushrooms, I am learning every year.  When it comes to their aromatic components, I will never pretend to know it all, even if I could possibly describe them properly.  I could certainly use a little more vocabulary, but I’m not only blaming me or the English language; there’s more to mushrooms than that. If a carrot has 20 aromatic compounds, a mushroom has 200.  Then there’s the glutamates (MSG) and other proteins (natural jelly), all playing into the taste.  Their mystery is not surprising given that they have been around for eons before us; I reckon five or six sets of taste buds probably doesn’t cut it to fully get them.    


All that said, I realize I’m just not good at this anymore.  I should have taken more notes earlier on.  I’m just not fresh enough; I know them too well.  It’s hard to be objective in describing your family; mushrooms are my family.


So before I lose all points of reference and my mind is a mushroom mash and mess, I better take down what I have.  Given my life in funghi (partnered with François, what choice do I have?), it will probably only get worse. 


I’m keen to hash this out now.  Before I put a cap on the mushroom season for once and for all. 


For a little perspective, I recruited my bus-girl Roxane, who is sharp as a tack, betting that she could nail down an aroma or two. I was drawn to the idea of her fresh palette, not in the least tinged by too much knowledge, baggage or bravado, like a cook’s might be. It turned out that her observations often came in line with mine in terms of fruit or chocolate, and even more so once I made sense of her jargon.  She came up with things like ‘it smells like a granola bar’, ‘my grandmother’s desserts’, ‘like apple pie’, or ‘soap’ or ‘like vitamins’.  Which had me trying to figure out if she meant honey or nuts, butter or spice or lavender, so I would quiz her.  The only unsolved mystery was the Centrum thing, I just didn’t understand. All told, her efforts hardly changed much in my big picture, although she really did shine with the dried armillaires -  Candied citrus fruit, spice cake, wow!


Finally, below is a compilation of brief notes, keeping it to a phrase per shroom.  I’m sorry if it’s jumbled (wine people really hate this kind of mixing of aroma and flavour), but I like it this way because that’s how it plays out in real life as they all come together on the palette.  And sorry about the French terms all along, it’s just easier for me (and this is Quebec, this is how we talk).  Any cooking or texture notes are only there if they are exceptional.  With respect to all the boletes (including Cepes, and Agarics as well), I’m talking about the dried form, the rest are for fresh.  In general, the interesting, ‘extra’ aromas only come out once dried.  In fact, only a handful of mushrooms don’t get better once dried, and those are the ones most prized for texture - the Chanterelles, Polypore, Pleurotes, Lobster, Pied bleu. Noble Kings like Cepes, Matsutake and Agarics kick ass in both form.


BTW, Thanks Susan, for the shake, a reminder to keep it real and stay young.   These are for you.


My Mush aroma notes:


Agarics Champêtre                  very mushroom, toast, fruity chocolate (cherry blossom), truffle

Armillaire Ventru                      mild but with a bite, toothsome texture, chemical off notes with high heat; dried: fruitcake, spice, citrus

Bolet baie                                buttery, fruity, excellent, rare (boohoo)

Bolet insigne                            moka, molasses, hickory

Bolet jaune                              toffee, vanilla, coconut, butter

Bolet orangé                            roasted nuts, major floral component (lilac..)

Bolet à Pied Glabrescent          fragrant, subtley floral, honey, caramel, green nutty as in stone fruit pit

Bolet à Pied rouge                   very fruity, vanilla, chocolate, playdo (Rox says apple pie)

Cepes                                     aromatic and meaty (roast beef), soy, vanilla, coffee, c cinnamon, nutmeg

Cèpe des Mélèize                    very sweet, moka, chocolate, vanilla, butterscotch, strawberry ice cream

Chanterelles                             maple syrup, almonds

Chanterelles Clavaires  earthy, meaty, maple syrup, almonds and coconut

Chanterelles en Tubes  hot milk, cappucino, caramel

Coprins                                   meaty, woodsy, walnuts, long cooking best

Hygophores                             apricots, chicoutai

Lactaire Délicieux                    brittle, delicate, floral, walnuts

Lactaire couleur de sui citrus, flowers

Lepiote lisse                            mushroomy, much umami, soy, nuts

Lobster mushroom                   firm texture, not much flavour, but yes lobster, earth, fresh esp dried: fresh, coconut

Matsutake                               particularly aromatic, unique: floral, fruity and earthy all at once, chewy texture, citrus, pine nut

Mousserons                             supremely delicate, coffee, honey, citrus, bitter almond, kirch

Morilles                                   deep and earthy, musty, intense but subtle, truffle, coffee, spice, oreo cookie

Pied bleu                                 Strong, meaty, nutty, sapin, peppery, vegetal

Pied de mouton                        Mushroomy but fresh, acid, buttery even cheesy, cook low heat,        dried: butterscotch, almond paste

Pleurotes(automne)                  delicate, almonds, bbq chicken

Polypore Souffré                     Watermelon, lilacs, corn, lemon

Polypore Poule des bois          Delicate, chewy, melon, corn, almonds

Trompette de la Mort               Sweet and deeply earthy but fresh, complex, truffle, licorice, beurre noisette

Posted on Thursday, November 5, 2009 at 02:50AM by Registered CommenterNancy Hinton | Comments2 Comments

Reader Comments (2)

Bravo Nancy! You tell a tale like no-one. And very helpful for we who have not yet the experience with such ingredients.
I laughed the whole way, reminiscing of my own experiences with fish. "What does Halibut taste like?", I posed to myself. How would I describe Dungeness from King Crab?
What an accumulative! Your list could go on and on but I think this was a great abbreviation.
Yours in the Wild, Chef Jonathon
You have done it once again! Amazing read!
May 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterToby Sherman

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