Notre vesse de loup géante,
25lb of pristine mushroom flesh
This baby provided the excitement at Les Jardins Sauvages this week. A record for François when it comes to puffballs, his biggest before being 18lb.. Although he did once score a 57lb hen of the woods. Bob (the name François coined the famous vesse) was on display at our kiosk at Jean Talon Market in Montreal all weekend. The media (and customers) had a field day. Bob got a full page two with François in the Journal de Montreal, showed up in the Journal de Quebec, on CBC TV, among other radio stations and other papers. It was hard to get anything else done at the market or at the table champêtre amidst the mushroom frenzy. I was just worried it wouldn't hold up to all the time out of the fridge being fondled by journalists; afterall, I want to cook the thing while it's in top shape. I guess that's a price to pay for publicity! But no matter, today it gets the knife (after one last TV appearance, on des Kiwis et des Hommes, this morning).
We thought we were having a good vesse de loup (puffball) year when François harvested this little family a couple of weeks ago. He had watched them grow for a week, then jumped in when it was time. You see, they need to be picked when white throughout and still firm. Under the right conditions, they can grow to impressive sizes, but it's a gamble; they can easily go bad in a day or two. I have seen François water them like plants in drier times, and shield them with an umbrella on stormy rain days.
I am certainly stoked, because it has been two years since we've gotten more than a couple of babies. They used to show up in the same spot every year on our property, but for the past two years, there has been nothing. Now, I get to feature them on my menu as more than a garnish and I can play around.
It is definitely a delicious mushroom, and when young and firm, quite versatile and easy to love. With a pronounced mushroom character, it is nevertheless quite delicate in taste when young, gaining in intensity with age. The texture is tender and sponge-like but nice. François says it reminds him of cheese, I say eggplant. And in fact, I find it cooks up just like eggplant. If you don't use a hot enough pan or sufficient oil, it will soak up the oil and burn quickly, at which point it turns bitter. So you need to turn down the heat and cook it gently once it starts browning, or bake it. I like coating it too to fry up à l'anglaise or in a batter. It is stellar in soups and sauces, but I find it a shame to pass up on the interesting texture.
In previous years, I have also used it in a stuffing for wontons, fried up tempura style, and in a potato gratin. The latter was particularly winner due to the contrasting textures and the way the puffball perfumed the spuds. Oh and I always peel it before slicing or dicing.
Now, if only the rest of the mushrooms would show up. We are way behind schedule due to the dry summer in most of Quebec. Our gang in Gaspésie have all but given up. Our favourite forests next door have not delivered much. Anything that comes in has been going to the market. All this rain should help if it stays warm, but I'm afraid we have missed out on a few species. We will have enough to do our mushroom festival hopefully, if only with a few less varieties (still 20 though..). But it is when it comes to our pickles, dried mushroom mix and stocks for the year that we will surely come up short. I have thousands of pounds to go, only a few hundred pounds down.
So fingers crossed.. C'mon mother nature (and François and co.), pretty please.
When I finally got to cook up this baby, it was thankfully still in tip-top shape despite the photo shoots and time on display at the market. White and springy like a puffball should be when it is good, slicing and dicing it was so fun. It is a pleasure to handle, so soft and spongelike. It is trickier to cook up, but I had enough to be more experimental than usual. As you can see it provided enough flesh to feed an army.
I made steaks, I made cutlets, I made ratatatouille, I made soup. I dried some. I made a sauce and a duxelles for a stuffing. Even baked, it was good. For a short time on high heat with enough oil, it turns out like it does sautéed, but with a lot less pan work. For a longer time, it crisps up. With less oil, you can even make pita style chips. Now I understand how François once used a big disk of puffball to make a pizza crust. Personally, I prefer it fried or baked, cooked exactly like one would cook eggplant. I like a soft, melting texture both with puffball and with eggplant. But I also like the crunchy contrast a crust gives to the soft center, as when it is coated and pan-fried.
I have some more playing around to do, but at this point I am thrilled. To reconnect with the vesse de loup with a good season that gives me enough to get to know it more.
Not being the gambling type, I think picking early is smart, and encourage François to bring back whatever is small and firm. I'll forgo the possibility of a prize mushroom that may or may not deliver for less of a sure thing. This time, I'm happy that François took the calculated risk. Sometimes, bigger is better.