The magical world of mushroom aromas - A lot of je ne sais quoi
Tis the season. I am processing hundreds of pounds of mushrooms every week – cleaning, slicing, dehydrating, blanching or cooking, pickling etc. A ton down now, with another ton to go, I am living in a mushroom cloud. Boletes, Chanterelles, Hen of the Woods, Puffball, Hedgehog, Yellowfoots, Matsutake are all perfuming my kitchen, headspace, car, curtains and clothes..
After all these years at Les Jardins Sauvages, I know the 30+ varieties that we harvest intimately, and I am enchanted by their heady scents year after year.. I have a good nose but always have a hard time nailing the damn shrooms with words, reminding me of my first winetasting class. They are not only mysterious and elusive in the woods, but on the palette – each one characteristic and complex, so hard to pin down.
Unmistakable, unique, nothing smells like Matsutake mushrooms for instance. Fresh, in the oven or dehydrator, they are seriously intoxicating on different levels. Cinnamon and Flowers definitely; one year I noted violets/lilacs, this year I say rose ?? plus a lot of je ne sais quoi..
My car still harbours the lingering odor of freshly picked baskets of porcini from a week ago - another mushroom that leaves its mark. Fragrantly earthy, nutty and sweet smelling, even better in the pan or yet the dehydrator, where an entirely different set of aromas develop: vanilla, soy, coffee and spice. Hen of the woods roast up like chicken and corn, wild oysters like almonds and chicken. Others smell like walnuts or citrus (Delicious Lactarius!), it’s crazy. Puffball can be pungent and black trumpets musky but like with cheese or truffle, there is such a thing as 'good stink' that translates into great taste.
When cooking, the aroma notes like 'chicken' are often associated with the Maillard reaction (caramelising sugars & protein) mixed in with what I call the forest (piney/woodsy/nutty etc). However, with many shrooms, especially in the bolete family, once dried, you get a whole other family of increasingly complex, often exotic aromas that you don’t get fresh or cooked – fruity flavours, vanilla, chocolate, caramel, butter, coconut on top of the nuts and earthy notes. This last group I call ‘sweet’ because I associate them with dessert. The red mouthed bolete, larch bolete, slippery jack and Maple scented Lactarious are incredible naturals in the sweet kitchen.
There is something hauntingly addictive about wild mushrooms. Many nature lovers get hooked in the hunt, whereas with cooks and gourmands, it is at the stove and table. Beyond their deliciousness, nutritional content and newfound medicinal properties, they win you over with their mystical aromas. Then with their flavours of course and omnipresent umami kicking in with protein and minerals, texture and mouthfeel, plus whatever bonus the accompanying recipe delivers. Mushrooms are fine dance partners, pairing well with a delicate fish or slab of red meat; they can jazz up a sidedish or take the leading role in a pasta, tagine or risotto, ice cream or cookie. There is a mushroom for everything.
I obviously love my shrooms and I have picked them apart, figuring out which ones are best cooked or dried, braised or roasted, pickled or candied, steeped or pulverized. I spend a lot of time cooking them and teaching people how to prepare them. Everyone wants to know how to pick and cook, but it’s the aromas that fascinate me most. I know them almost better than my family, but I have just about given up trying to describe their nuances. A few years ago, I had employees participating in my little shroom sniffing exercise like a wine tasting, but it got me nowhere beyond laughs. Ok it smells like my grandma’s apple pie (so you mean apple and cinnamon?, I guess). I look at my notes from the early years and I see ‘maple’ for chanterelles or ‘pine nut’ for matsutake.. And this is true, but now I’m no longer objective, I know them too well, it’s that they just smell like themselves, like a ‘Chanterelle’ or a ‘Matsutake’, as a pear smells like a pear and an orange an orange.
And I guess, that’s enough for me. I’m at an age that I have no problem accepting some magic and ‘je ne sais quoi’ in seeking out and understanding the truth about things. There was a time too when I was bent on figuring out what molecule (a protein I thought) in certain boletes that creates a solid emulsion, to hear from a scientist that it was probably a complex saccharide of some kind; anyhow now I've moved on, comfortable with what I understand, able to exploit or avoid its emulsifying properties without delving into the chemistry.
Plainly viscerally, I have simply discovered a marvelous world of aromas with mushrooms that few people are aware of. I might be done with over analysing, but I do encourage you to sniff your mushrooms.. And I can’t help but think François Chartier would have fun attacking this one day. Let’s just say that a mushroom is not a mushroom and any one way more complex than a stick of celery or stalk of rosemary.
My Stupid Mushroom aroma notes
Agarics Champêtre very mushroomy, toast, fruity chocolate (cherry blossom), truffle
Armillaire Ventru mild but with a bite, toothsome texture, nutty, ostie/church wafer; 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
Bolet à Pied Glabrescent fragrant, subtley floral, honey, caramel, green nutty as in stone fruit pit, caramilk
Bolet à Pied rouge very fruity, vanilla, chocolate, playdo
Cepes aromatic and meaty (roast beef), soy, vanilla, coffee, 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, citrus
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, chocolate, 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, roasted chicken, almonds
Trompette de la Mort Sweet and deeply earthy but fresh, complex, truffle, licorice, beurre noisette