Mushroom boom

They once seemed so exotic, but a world of mushrooms have made themselves at home in our stores


The Gazette

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

If a supermarket puts mushrooms on special, those packages almost fly out the door. Retailers say sales rise to about five times their normal rate.

But even without price-slashing - from the regular $1.99 for a half-pound (227 g) to a bargain 99 cents - mushroom sales are booming. For the past five years, the stores calculate increases of between 10 and 18 per cent each year.

The boom is all part of the fashion for fresh, easy-cooking specialty foods, they believe. In recent years, we've seen supermarkets looking more like specialty stores as they stock dozens of kinds of leafy greens, blocks of feta cheese in brine, and packages of fresh tortellini and ravioli.

Mushrooms are hot. As one produce merchandiser for a major Quebec chain put it, "Mushrooms are a good cooking item that you see on A la di Stasio and all the other TV (cooking) shows, in restaurants, and in the new cookbooks."

What's a steak or lamb chops without freshly sauteed mushrooms on the side? The best omelettes and quiches bulge over a filling of mushrooms combined with vegetables or meats. Braised dishes often contain fresh or dried mushrooms bubbling gently in their sauce, releasing their rich flavour.

A tossed salad that includes raw mushrooms reveals the true taste of the fresh fungus. And vegetarians, always seeking sources of flavour to replace meat, like their mushrooms, particularly the meaty slabs of giant portobellos, coated with oil and sauteed or grilled.

Five years ago, before mushrooms moved into the "hot product" category, supermarkets sold the fresh, white mushroom called button, or Paris, variety. Canned mushrooms, which used to come from Quebec's long-gone Slacks company in Waterloo, were already out of fashion. If you wanted dried mushrooms to simmer in your soup or stew, Chinatown was your source. And foodies had to do some sniffing around to find a fresh portobello or pleurote.

But lately, the mushroom market has burgeoned to the point that a large supermarket regularly sells half a dozen fresh varieties and almost as many dried.

Coming up fast in recent times are the coffee-coloured cafe or cremini mushrooms, and large-capped portobellos (a mature button variety), increasing sales at the rate of 30 per cent per year.

Other supermarket regulars are pleurote (oyster), shiitake, chanterelle, plus a variety of dried mushrooms.

Add to this assortment an organic mushroom that has just arrived in town by the name of mini bella from major Ontario grower, Highline. It's the popular white button mushroom and is selling at IGA and Costco stores.

You probably have to visit a specialty produce store to obtain the more unusual fresh varieties such as hedgehog, lobster, morel, shaggymane and black trumpet, plus any wild mushrooms. These kinds, prized by top chefs for their novelty and visual appeal, are often imported from eastern Europe, and sell for as much as four times the price of those handy half-pound packages.

Evidence of the mushroom fashion is the all-mushroom menu offered occasionally by Montreal chefs. This fall, the fashion for fungus got a new boost when both a table champetre in St. Roch de l'Achigan and the Pearson School of Culinary Arts in LaSalle put on six- to eight-course mushroom feasts.

It turns out Nancy Hinton, surely one of Quebec's most energetic chefs, planned both menus. Trained at Pearson and with experience in Montreal restaurants and years at the celebrated L'Eau a la Bouche in Ste. Adele, she likes to use both fresh and dried mushrooms in her cuisine.

"I use dried mushrooms to give deep background flavours, a subtle delicate taste to a fresh mushroom dish," she said in an interview. "And I use the soaking liquid from the dried mushrooms. It's almost like a meat stock." Reconstituting dried mushrooms is easy: Place them in a bowl, pour in enough boiling water to cover them, and let stand about 15 minutes, then drain, reserving the liquid.

At Hinton's table champetre, which continues this weekend, the mushrooms are wild. At the LaSalle cooking school, the menu comprised cultivated varieties. Both menus offered chanterelle, black trumpet, lobster, shaggymane and boletus mushrooms.

Speaking of wild mushrooms, it's pick-your-own season but harvesters warn that you must know your varieties because a few are poisonous. Go picking with someone who knows good from harmful. For information, call the Cercle des Mycologues de Montreal at the Montreal Botanical Garden, 514-872-1493.

- Nancy Hinton's eight-course wild-mushroom menu is at A la Table des Jardins Sauvages, St. Roch de l'Achigan; a few spots remain for tomorrow, Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. Price is $75 (BYOB). It's a 45-minute drive northeast of Montreal. Call (450) 588-5125.

- Judith Noel-Gagnon loves mushrooms so much she and her family opened a boutique packed with ... mushrooms. Read about it in Amuse-Bouche in Saturday's Weekend Life.

© The Gazette (Montreal) 2006