It’s a poblano

The first time it was their sheer beauty. That simple. I bought them solely for their appearance. For their deep inky green colour and for the lustre of their skins. I’d no idea how I would use them, or even what they were, because the supermarket selling them had given a price, but no identity. OK, I knew they were a member of the Capsicum genus of flowering plants, but exactly what kind of member, and more to the point, what kind of note would they add to a recipe?

The extended capsicum family includes hot varieties and mild or sweet varieties, and they’re all native to the Americas. Spanish and Portuguese explorers introduced the plant to the rest of the world and it’s become an important ingredient in many cuisines. Imagine Indian or Thai dishes without chilli, Korean kimch’i minus the heat, or Hungarian cooking before paprika.

A bit of digging and I discovered my purchase was a poblano chilli, a cultivar of the Capsicum annuum species. It’s named after the state of Puebla in central Mexico were it originated. So no surprise, it’s common in Mexican dishes like the classic chile rellenos in which the roasted vegetable is stuffed with cheese, coated in egg, then fried. Immature poblanos are green, maturing to a brownish-red colour, at which point they may be dried and change their name to be known hereafter as anchos.

Poblano chillies

Quite large—the ones I bought were 9-12 centimetres long—with a hint of heart-shape, the poblano was a mystery to me and that gave it a special allure. It stood out among the supermarket’s rainbow display of its fellow nightshades (Solanaceae): red capsicums, yellow, orange, purple, and a whole spectrum of greens from watery pale to the dark intensity of the poblano.

Capsicums, a.k.a. peppers and piemento, were relative latecomers to Australian kitchens. ‘The flavour of green peppers, or capsicums is still unknown in many households,’ ran a sub-heading in a Sydney newspaper from 1950. Six years later The Argus (Melbourne) wrote that ‘with the influence of European migrants on local food tastes, it is inevitable there will be an ever increasing desire to grow peppers, or capsicum, in the home garden.’ A regional Queensland newspaper offered a different slant on the story: ‘American troops, stationed in Australia during the war, not only increased the immediate demand, hut also helped to make capsicums popular with Australians.’

Back to poblanos. While they tend to be mild in flavour, occasionally and unpredictably they can be hot, hot, hot. (The same is true of many capsicum varieties.) And the ripened red poblano packs more of a kick than the green.

When I brought my first poblano home, I cut off a slice to taste it raw. It had a subtle acidity and a fruitiness, which was enhanced by roasting. Their skins are robust and on the thick side, so I decided to experiment with stuffing them. First I tried a mix of cooked rice, smashed chick peas (also cooked), onion, garlic, diced tomatoes, cumin and a dash of cinnamon. Then I tried crab mixed with a small amount of béchamel and topped with breadcrumbs.

I liked the first stuffing better, but as with all culinary experiments, there’s a lot of trial and error. I needed to make it a second (and third) time to adjust the balance of flavours and spicing. I went back to the Coles where I’d bought my first poblanos. Fortunately there was a fresh supply, and this time they were (mis)labelled—as bullhorn chillies. But that’s a thing with the capsicum family, isn’t it?—lots of aliases and local names.

Black treacle and what you can do with it

Gingerbread is possible
Sticky pudding, sticky tart,
The art of fudging,
Squares of parkin
All round snacks
Biscuits naturally
Cornish fairings, brandy snaps,
Some sort of Scottish scone.

Toffee is another possible
Slab of. Hard as.
Takes a hammer to break it up.

Return to gingercake
Traditional boil-up of butter and syrup.
Muddy muscovado. Dark leftover. Or hangover.
Gooey residue of empire.
Steamed spongy basin-shaped. With moat.
Sweet classics.
(No brownies, cookies, muffins choc chip or otherwise.)
The odd savoury.

The odd footnote:
Suffragettes used toffee hammers
To smash windows and win the vote.

 

Black treacle

Turning vegetarian—well, kind of

About four months ago I decided to stop eating meat. I’d been thinking about the politics of food and feeling ever more uneasy (queasy) about factory farming methods and the cruelty to animals (and workers) that is the corollary of feedlots and a fast food industry that demands massive quantities of cheap meat.

In J M Coetzee’s novella The Lives of Animals, a delectable blend of fiction and philosophical essay, his character-cum-alter ego, Elizabeth Costello is invited to deliver two guest lectures. Costello surprises her college hosts by choosing to discuss not literature (her academic expertise), but what she calls a ‘crime of stupefying proportions’, namely the abuse of animals.

For the last couple of years I’d bought and cooked only free-range meat. Then I stopped ordering meat dishes in cafés and restaurants because I assumed their supplies were mass produced in conditions I preferred not to imagine. As is the majority of meat sold in supermarkets. Now it was time to go the next step and give up meat altogether.

Eating meat in suburban England in the 1960s and 70s was the default. Few questioned its place on the table. Although I do remember that steak was only ever an occasional treat, and the portions were small—tiny by contemporary Australian standards. When I went to London to study for a postgraduate degree I moved into a large communal house on the Islington/Hackney border. The house ideology specified a wholegrain and vegetarian diet. There was a lot of vegetable sludge, and to this day even the word ‘millet’ makes me run a mile, but not everybody in that house was a terrible cook. From the more adept, I discovered that meat was not compulsory; that humous, dahl, börek and lasagne stuffed with peppery watercress were delicious alternatives.

But it was Indian that became my go-to vegetarian (and vegan when required) cuisine, that got me cooking meatless on a regular basis. It remains my all time favourite fare, and is why Wigram Street in Harris Park has become one of my favourite Sydney streets.

Wigram Street, Harris Park, January 2016Wigram Street on a stormy summer evening

Last month I was invited to a dinner party by a neighbour. When I accepted the invitation I mentioned that I didn’t eat meat. A few days beforehand an email announced the menu: paella made with seafood and chicken. I clarified that I didn’t eat any meat. My neighbour had assumed it was red meat I’d stopped eating. And that’s a common—if inconsistent—position. Poultry is OK, beef is not. Yet chickens are mass farmed in equally brutal conditions.

Our relationship to the food we consume colours who we are as a species and as individuals. I’ve cut out meat, but continue to eat fish and some seafood. I try to ensure it is sustainably sourced, but I wonder: Does this put me in the ‘vegetarians who eat chicken’ camp? A group I’ve made fun of in the past. Maybe. Fish are not vegetables, no matter how you twist it. As for seafood, I’ve never been terribly keen on oysters, and after reading a science article about how intelligent octopuses are, I took them off the menu. Took off all cephalopods in fact. Yes, I know it’s irrational, but eating is an emotional thing.

Raising animals for slaughter isn’t just bad for the unfortunate cows, pigs, chooks and lambs. Research reveals the environmental toll. It takes three to fifteen times as much water to produce animal protein as it does plant protein. Tropical forests in Brazil and elsewhere are being destroyed to create more acreage to raise livestock … I could go on, but you get the picture. Food and climate change are inextricably linked.

We tend to talk about food and diet as matters of individual choice, and they are, but political, economic, agri-business and social issues also influence what we chose to consume. More recently we’ve acknowledged that personal inclination is only part of a larger reckoning; popular discourse has moved questions of animal welfare and environmental protection from the hippie fringe to the mainstream stage.

Luckily the life of a pesco-vegetarian is no bed of kale. I’ve always cooked a lot of vegetable, pulse and tofu-based dishes, and now I’m experimenting with old favourites like chilli con carne—minus the carne. My first ‘chilli con verduras’ used crushed cauliflower, but I used far too much of it and as a result the dish tasted—well, altogether too worthy. Back to the chopping board. This time I’m adapting a recipe I found online that is based on the long slow cooking of lentils and beans. (I’m not interested in ersatz meats or manufactured substitutes like Quorn and TVP.)

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This is it, my chilli con verduras. Robust, spicy, and if I say so myself, pretty delicious.

For me personally, turning my back on bacon sandwiches wasn’t so much an environmental choice, as an ethical one. I find the operations of the meat industry insupportable. And in the end I couldn’t reconcile the cost of my diet—the suffering and slaughter simply so I could enjoy that bacon sandwich.

In The Life of Animals, Elizabeth Costello suggests that through acts of poetic imagining humans can ‘think their way into’ the nature of animals. Note that she says think your way not eat your way.

 

 

The condensed milk economy

What is it with kids and condensed milk? So many stories of children sneaking spoonfuls of the stuff, saving up to buy their own tubes or tins of it, using it to bargain or bribe each other. My brother had a great train set and I’d use the promise of condensed milk to persuade him to let me play with it. (Note to parents: girls like train sets.)

If kids and condensed milk go together like—well, kids and condensed milk, they’re not alone. There are two other groups of people strongly associated with it: housewives of the 1970s and soldiers.

Take a can of condensed milk … The product appeared frequently in The Australian Women’s Weekly, sometimes in the recipe pages, sometimes in advertisements. Take a 400g can of condensed milk … and make lemon curry mayonnaise (29 March 1978) or ‘take some fat off the good things in life’ and make a low fat version with Tongala Condensed Skim Milk (22 November 1978). And afterwards, if you fancy something sweet, then ‘Nestlé Sweetened Condensed Milk makes the most attractive Pineapple Flan for your family, and for you too.’ (28 February 1979)

Australian Women's Weekly 22.11.1978, page 176

The Australian Women’s Weekly, 22 November 1978

My first cheesecake used condensed milk. I was a student working a summer job in a café, and one of the cooks gave me her recipe. It had the standard biscuit crumb base, and a no-cook filling that mixed Philadelphia cream cheese with condensed milk, and the juice and grated zest of a lemon. It was the only method I knew until years later a German friend introduced me to her baked cheesecake. A lighter and altogether more subtle confection.

I hadn’t had any contact with condensed milk for ages, until a few days ago when I bought a tin. To see what recollections—apart from that student cheesecake—it might prompt. I removed the lid (now a ring-pull) and dipped in a teaspoon. It was homemade fudge and caramel tarts and Indian sweets and the sound of those toy trains chuff-chuffing across the carpet. When my idea of heaven would have been reading an Enid Blyton adventure while digging into my own tin of condensed milk. Needless to say, neither my brother nor I were allowed our own unlimited supplies. But we could add a small amount to our bowls of summer berries or stone fruit—instead of ice-cream. After our ration had been doled out, the can went back in the fridge. And I marked the level on the paper sleeve to ensure no one (i.e. my brother) took an unauthorised mouthful.

‘”Shall I look too?” said Pooh, who was beginning to feel a little eleven o’clockish. And he found a small tin of condensed milk, and something seemed to tell him that Tiggers didn’t like this, so he took it into a corner by itself, and went with it to see that nobody interrupted it.’ The House at Pooh Corner.

Condensed milk is cow’s milk heated to remove much of the water content and then sweetened. It’s thick, sticky and dizzyingly sweet. You can make your own or buy it ready made. The sugar acts as a preservative, so sweetened condensed milk enjoys a longer shelf-life than evaporated milk. Along a dusty road on the outskirts of Mumbai I saw vendors selling snacks, plastic combs, T-shirts with English logos and McVitie’s biscuits with expiration dates long passed. Plastic thongs bounced on strings above pyramids of condensed milk cans. In places where access to refrigeration is limited, sweetening your tea or coffee with tinned milk makes good sense.

In 1908 Nestlé opened its first Australian branch, and in 1911 built what was then the world’s largest condensed milk plant in Dennington, Victoria. In January 1917 Adelaide’s Daily Herald ran a lengthy article entitled A Campaign for Patriotism and Production. Today we’d probably label it advertorial.

‘Australia’s fame as a dairying country is worldwide … There has sprung up within the past 10 years, however, a new industry, which promises to make Australia even more famous than heretofore, and about which the general public still have little conception. We refer to the manufacture of condensed milk … ’

The article-cum-extended advert goes on to say that:

‘Since commencing operations in Australia the company has made wonderful progress. Its motto is “Australia for the Australians,” and Nestlé’s in this country has developed into a purely Australian industry. Australians manage condenseries and numerous branches of the business throughout Australia and New Zealand, and few but Australians are employed by the firm.’

The land of condensed milk and honey is one thing, but that motto leaves a rather sour aftertaste. Although given the date, 1917, maybe that was the zeitgeist? As for the role of condensed milk in battle:

‘The British Government early in the war recognised the value of Nestlé’s milk for the fighting men, and during the first couple of years of the conflict the company supplied over 100,000,000 tins of condensed milk, coffee milk, cocoa milk, and cream to the army and navy, and is still supplying those two fighting forces … Perhaps the best possible evidence of the value of condensed milk to the soldier in battle has been supplied by a French medical man … in a treatise recently issued by him to the medical fraternity on New Treatment of Diarrhoea by Condensed Milk Diluted in Rice Water.’

Enough said. But worth noting that it wasn’t only the during the First World War that troops received stocks of condensed milk. They did in the Second World War, and in Korea and Vietnam too. Perhaps, even as I write this, Australian soldiers in the Middle East are pouring condensed milk into their coffee and over their Weetbix? Or has long-life milk replaced condensed for the modern military?

IMG_0886

‘I fell asleep and in my ragged hungry dreams saw Shestakov’s can of condensed milk, a monstrous can with a sky-blue label. Enormous and blue as the night sky, the can had a thousand holes punched in it, and the milk seeped out and flowed in a stream as broad as the Milky Way. My hands easily reached the sky and greedily I drank the thick, sweet, starry milk.’

That’s from Condensed Milk, a 1956 short story by the Russian writer (and labour camp survivor) Varlam Shalamov. The narrator is offered a place on a planned escape from the gulag. To build his strength for the ordeal, he asks the ringleader for some tins of condensed milk. A delicious extravagance in the midst of betrayal, duplicity and almost certain death.

On a lighter note, in 1968 The Canberra Times published a report about the Paris fashion shows that began:

‘It is just 21 years since—my stomach full of butterflies—I set off for Paris with two brand new note books, four well sharpened pencils and a tin of condensed milk in my suitcase. I was on my way to write my very first reports on the French couture collections. I remember little of the journey and even less of the conditions in the capital—apart from the fact that the coffee tasted like stewed socks and the tinned milk came in remarkably handy— ’

Why on earth would you take a tin of condensed milk from Australia to Paris? At first I wondered if it was it a fear of foreign food. Or foreign food hygiene. But then I wondered if it wasn’t about post-war scarcity. How easy would it have been to obtain fresh milk in Paris in 1947?

It was during research trips to Brazil several years ago that I encountered what I think of as ‘adult’ condensed milk. Doce de leite, or dulce de leche in Spanish, is an unctuous, intensely sweet staple of Latin America. A creamy condiment you spread on toast, use in pastries, cakes and deserts. It’s milk cooked with sugar until it becomes thick and caramelly. To make it, you need time and bucket-loads of patience because you have to stand at the stovetop stirring, stirring … stirring to ensure the milk doesn’t catch. You can buy jars of it in supermarkets, but the best doce de leite comes from the home kitchen or a local pâtissier. Yes, Brazilians have found a way to do what we only dreamt of as kids: find a way to legitimately eat condensed milk.

 

Eat More Thistles!

I’m presenting Eat More Thistles! as part of the 2015 Food & Words festival in Sydney on Saturday 19 September.

Eat More Thistles image copy

At the end of the 1990s I visited North Korea. It was the height of the famine—but I ate well. An uncomfortable reality, underscored by the fact that I was often the sole diner in (revolving) restaurants designed for mass gatherings. My minders played down the extent of the shortage, but they couldn’t hide the people scouring patches of dry earth for weeds or anything remotely edible. (Gathering wild greens, including thistles, has a long culinary history across the peninsula.) When North Korea released over 300 new slogans earlier this year, I decided to add a few of my own. Eat More Thistles! draws on the food diary I kept of my trip to the Democratic People’s Republic. It features the surprisingly sophisticated dishes I was served, glimpses of here-today-gone-tomorrow markets, comic outpourings of gastronomic nationalism, and cooking with thistles both sides of the 38th parallel.

ig FW15 Postcard1Day

The brainchild of food writer Barbara Sweeney, Food & Words is an annual one-day food writers’ festival open to anyone who likes to read about, discuss and consume food. And it’s all happening at The Mint, Macquarie Street, Sydney.

Check out the program and buy tickets at: http://foodandwords.com.au

Gone (back) to seed cake

‘Anything further I can get you, my lady? Cake of any kind?’
‘Cake?’ Lady Selina thought about it, was doubtful.
‘We are serving very good seed cake, my lady. I can recommend it.’
‘Seed cake? I haven’t eaten seed cake for years. It is real seed cake?’
‘Oh, yes, my lady. The cook has had the recipe for years. You’ll enjoy it, I’m sure.’
Henry gave a glance at one of his retinue, and the lad departed in search of seed cake.

That exchange is from Agatha Christie’s At Bertram’s Hotel. Although seed cake was a teatime staple in Victorian literature—it’s mentioned in Jane Eyre and in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, to give but two examples—it had fallen off the menu by 1965 when At Bertram’s Hotel was published.

Caraway isn’t a romantic spice like vanilla. Nor an exotic one like nutmeg or cardamom. It’s a workaday flavour, a home-grown plant found in gardens, fields, and wild across Europe, North Africa and parts of Asia. One of the world’s oldest seasonings, it was described by Dioscorides in the third volume of his pharmacopoeia; the roots were eaten in Roman times; it is named in the writings of Arabic scholars al-Idrisi and Ibn al-Baitar in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and its use as a culinary spice probably dates from around that time.

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Tunisian harissa recipes often list caraway, and I’ve heard of its occasional use in Indian dishes, but for me it’s the quintessential taste of central and northern Europe. Infused in vodka. Adding depth to classic stews like goulash and bigos. Paired with rye bread, farmer’s cheese, root vegetables, pork, potatoes, cauliflower, apples and cabbage. Especially cabbage. Red, white, curly and flat.

The Polish word for caraway, kminek, also translates as cumin, and these two spices are often mixed up—linguistically. (I disagree with the authors of Polish Heritage Cookery who claim the two are ‘almost identical in taste and may be used interchangeably’.) In French caraway is called carvi as well as meadow cumin (cumin de prés) and sometimes mountain cumin. Online I’ve seen it referred to as Persian cumin. In point of fact, caraway doesn’t play nicely with a number of ingredients, and it really dislikes fennel. Both plants may be members of the same botanic family, but in the kitchen garden their mutual antipathy means they each hinder the growth of the other.

In Latin, caraway is Carum carvi. It belongs to the Umbelliferae or Apiaceae family—a.k.a. the parsley or carrot family in common parlance. A large entity of some 3,000 species found mostly in northern hemisphere temperate regions. Their defining characteristic—to the layperson—is the inflorescence, which is typically a number of short flower stalks which splay out from a common point like the ribs of an umbrella. Hence Umbelliferae.

caraway

Some species are toxic, the most famous example being the hemlock that killed Socrates, but others are popular vegetables (carrot, celery, parsnip, fennel) and herbs (parsley, chervil, dill, coriander). And a few have been valued as folk remedies and ornamentals.

Carum carvi likes sun but is otherwise an easy-going plant and will thrive in most soils. Unlike some of its relatives, it isn’t a declared weed in Australia.

We call them seeds, but technically they are the dried fruit of the plant. Beautiful to look at: striped, crescent-shaped, in subtle shades of dun and brown. But caraway is a polarising spice, disagreeable to some, delectable to others. Me, I like its complexity, its aniseedy, vaguely citrusy aroma.

Caraway may be a key flavour of Mitteleuropa, but it’s also the signature ingredient in that old-fashioned English staple, the seed cake. According to Andrea Broomfield’s Food and Cooking In Victorian England, seed cakes originated in East Anglia during the sixteenth century. They were traditionally served by farmers’ wives to the labourers at harvest and seeding times. And not only cake. Shakespeare refers to caraway in the final act of Henry IV Part 2 when small-time landowner Shallow offers Falstaff

‘ … a last year’s pippin [a variety of apple] of my own graffing,
with a dish of caraways, and so forth … ’

My parents and other grown-ups liked seed cake. Children didn’t. I remember them—the cakes not our parents—hanging around in the cupboard for weeks, dry as dust and just about as exciting. English respectability in a cake tin.

Why were they always so dry?

Call it nostalgia, but seed cake has hit the comeback trail. Last month I decided to give it another try; as an adult I’ve come to like those plainer cakes that go so well with cups of tea. I researched a few recipes in older cookbooks and in newspaper archives—looking in particular at publications from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—and picked up a few tips along the way. A West Australian newspaper from 1924 suggests that before you introduce caraway seeds into your cake mixture, you bruise them to release their flavour. My own tip is to remember that when it comes caraway seeds, less is definitely more.

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Sample given to the Science Museum of Victoria by the Indian Government in 1887

The recipe I like most is Nigel Slater’s ‘delightfully understated cake’. His addition of ground almonds keeps it moist without overwhelming the caraway which is after all seed cake’s main game. And although he advises readers not to fiddle with the basics, I favour the addition of half a glass of Madeira or other fortified wine.

Meanwhile back At Bertram’s Hotel:

‘Another day,’ said Miss Marple to herself, greeting the fact with her usual gentle pleasure. Another day—and who knew what it might bring forth?
She relaxed, and abandoning her knitting, let thoughts pass in an idle stream through her head … fancy serving old-fashioned seed cake! She had never expected, not for a moment, that things would be as much like they used to be … because, after all, Time didn’t stand still …

Mists, mellow fruitfulness—and mushrooms

Autumn has been and gone in the northern hemisphere, and here in Australia we’ve got what’s forecast to be a dry and fiery summer to get though before Keats’ ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ rolls in. (I’m not a fan of the antipodean summer with its convergence of hot weather and Christmas rah-rah.) So this is an odd time to be writing about mushrooms.

What got me thinking about them was the Central Mushroom Institute of Pyongyang. I visited the city at the tail end of the 1990s, and I’ve kept an eye on the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) ever since. According to the skinniest book in my collection, Best Recipes of Pyongyang by the Cooks Association of the DPRK, ‘The speciality foods of Pyongyang where the immemorial history and brilliant culture are prouding themselves show the advantage of the Korean dishes for their taste, nutrient and pharmaceutical value.’ This, let’s call it culinary nationalism, was a feature of my trip. And it’s culinary nationalism that echoes through press releases from the state-run news agency (KCNA) about the Central Mushroom Institute of Pyongyang, which opened last year.

All manner of rumours and fantastical tales emanate from North Korea. I read somewhere that a farmer is breeding giant mushrooms weighing up to 20 kilos apiece! No photos alas, but the story reminds me of the creepy 1963 Japanese horror film Matango, a.k.a. Fungus of Terror or Attack of the Mushroom People. As does this widely circulated picture of Kim Jong-un at a mushroom plant built by Korean People’s Army Unit #534.

Kim Jong-un gets up close with mushrooms

Kim Jong-un gets up close with mushrooms. Photo: Rodong Sinmum (Workers’ Newspaper)

While nation-building narratives of fungal development and prowess feature scientists and technical staff, their roles are secondary. It’s Kim Jong-un who is the undisputed hero, urging farmers to make North Korea a ‘mushroom kingdom’.

Yet the Marshal’s curious passion for mushrooms is perhaps not so curious when you consider that Koreans on both sides of the 38th parallel have a long history of gathering, cultivating and cooking mushrooms.

When I lived in Seoul in 1998/9 I’d finish teaching my 8:00 am class at the university and head downhill to the local Huksok-dong market. It was an old-fashioned place; a professor once told me it reminded him of the markets of his childhood before the Korean War. I imagine it’s now gone—or been modernised. This description of it comes from my notebook of the time:

Huksok-dong Market is narrow alleys, uneven flagstones and puddles. Improvised lighting of a wattage that could make everything seem romantic and sometimes does. It’s higgledy-piggledy, plastic bowls of kimch’i, stalls pumping steam and dishing up dumplings to schoolgirls in navy blue uniforms. It’s dim and dank. It’s warm and vivid. It smells of pancakes, toasted sesame, doughnuts, bean paste, fish and drains. Paths disappear around corners and into shadow. It’s old women squatting beside household wares stacked high and windows streaked with the memory of a thousand cigarettes. Hard sell, hard work, hands red-raw. It’s a female domain in a very male-centred country. (The glass ceiling is still very thick in Korea.) It’s how much? Watch your step! What’s that? 갑 사함니다 (Thank you). Brass kettles boil atop paraffin heaters. Voices rise. Operas of both the soap and high art variety play out. It’s gills that have only just breathed their last, it’s a sea of greens, and clouds of mushrooms …

Huksuk-dong market 1998-9 1

Huksok-dong market, 1998/9

I’d buy large paper bagfuls of shiitake and king oyster mushrooms for a couple of dollars. And in the grotty flat where I was living I’d get the rice cooker going, and on one of my 2 hotplates cook up a stir-fry of mixed mushrooms with garlic and ginger, spring onions and tofu.

Huksok-dong market 1998-9

Huksok-dong market, 1998/9

Scientifically speaking, mushrooms belong to a kingdom all their own. One that includes edible mushrooms, the toadstools of fairytales (the distinction between mushrooms and toadstools is cultural rather than biological), moulds, yeasts, smuts and mildews. Unlike plants, fungi don’t photosynthesise. They feed off organic matter made by other living things.

Looking beyond mushrooms, fungi make bread rise, ferment beer, ripen cheese and produce antibiotics. They’re also agents of plant diseases like Dutch elm, leaf curl, rust and cankers. And indirectly responsible for one of the great migrations of the nineteenth century. We can trace the Irish diaspora back via the great famine and the blight that devastated the potato harvest to a fungus called Phytophthora infestans—albeit one now reclassified as fungus-like rather than a true fungus.

Call me sceptical, but when I see a restaurant offering ‘wild mushrooms’ I think it’s a fair bet they were cultivated. A more accurate translation of menuspeak’s ‘wild mushrooms’ would be ‘includes other varieties besides the usual buttons’. I don’t actually have a problem with this. In fact, given the difficulty of identification—and the risks if you get it wrong—it’s a much safer option.

No wonder murder by mushroom is popular with writers of crime fiction. The best-known book is probably the 1930 epistolary novel The Documents in the Case by Dorothy L Sayers and Robert Eustace. There was also an episode of TV’s Midsomer Murders where someone is poisoned with Amanita virosa, a mushroom commonly known destroying angel. A close relative of Amanita phalloides or the death cap.

My mother knew her mushrooms and autumn mornings, especially after overnight rain, she’d head off with a basket and a sharp knife. If the expedition was successful, we’d have soups and omelettes and pies the size of a child’s fist. But my father, who was a conservative eater, always refused them. If the mushrooms weren’t shop-bought, he wasn’t going near them. Eating wild mushrooms, he said, was like playing with fire.

Unlike the foragers of yesteryear we can get fresh mushrooms all year round. Most of those we buy are Agaricus bisporus given different names according to their age and character. Buttons are the youngest, and have been bred for their soft texture and white colour. The portobello (or portabella) is the most mature: a regular mushroom left to grow until it spreads into that big, meaty cap. Swiss browns (known variously as cremini and chestnut mushrooms) are a slightly different strain of the same species, which develops a thin layer of coffee-coloured cells on its cap. Swiss browns have a slightly firmer texture and a richer, earthier flavour than their white relatives.

But it’s not only members of the Agaricus bisporus family. City-dwellers can usually obtain enoki, shiitake, oyster, shimeji and others. In autumn you might also find saffron milk caps and slippery Jacks or boletes at growers’ markets or speciality stores. Yes, Australia’s come a long way from those tinned mushrooms that recipes of the 1960s often call for.

Saffron milk caps and slippery Jacks grow in the coniferous forests around Oberon, about 180 kilometres west of Sydney. The spores came originally from Europe along with the pine seedlings. Even out of (mushroom) season, to step into these forests with their distinctive scent and silence, is like stepping into a fairytale, or into the world of Tolstoy and Mickiewicz. This is a photo I took in the Oberon State Forest of that quintessential toadstool the fly agaric.

Fly agaric at Oberon

The appeal of mushrooms goes beyond the culinary. Quite apart from the hallucinogenic properties of a few species, there is something mysterious, a bit otherworldly about them. David Henry Thoreau compared them to ‘a successful poem,’ Adam Mickiewicz to ‘goblets that all kinds of liquor hold,’ while in the mid-twentieth century the mushroom clouds that billowed from atomic bombs became part of our visual lexicon.

The wild European mushroom I miss most is the chanterelle. I’ve bought them dried, but they’re not the same. Not even close. Boletus edulis and chanterelle have been called the king and queen of fungal life. Although relatively common in deciduous woodland where their apricot trumpets are easy to spot, chanterelles are rare or non-existent in Australia.

In Poland and Russia, foraging for mushrooms is a national craze. During the Second World War and the subsequent communist era, when food shortages were the norm, wild mushrooms added nutrition and much-needed flavour to a dreary diet. But mushrooming parties were popular way before then. You’ll find a lot of mushrooms in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Take this example: the intellectual Koznyshev wants to ask Varenka to marry him, but loses his nerve and asks her instead … about mushrooms.

‘What is the difference between a white boletus and a birch mushroom?’
Varenka’s lips trembled with agitation as she replied:
‘There is hardly any difference in the top part, but the stalks are different.’
As soon as these words were out of her mouth, both he and she understood that it was all over, that what was to have been said would not be said.

Mushrooming is also a popular pastime in Pan Tadeusz, Mickiewicz’s epic poem about the country life of the Polish and Lithuanian gentry in the early nineteenth century. And mushroom soup (zupa grzybowa) is a Polish classic. My recipe contains a few unorthodox ingredients, but hey, it’s a peasant dish, everyone’s got their own version. And I like to spice up Polish cooking, which is often a bit bland for my taste.

I’ve cut back on the butter and sour cream to make a healthier version of the traditional recipe.

1½ cups of dried mushrooms (chanterelles or porcini)
1 cup fresh mushrooms

Mushroom soup can easily become a rather unappetising sludge-grey colour. If possible I use chanterelles and button mushrooms to minimise this.

About 1½—1¾ litres chicken or beef stock. Or vegetable stock if you want a vegetarian soup
2 x bay leaves
1 x level tablespoon butter
1-2 x tablespoons olive oil (a light–tasting variety works best)
1 x yellow onion, finely diced
2 x tablespoons of flour or cornflour

Sometimes I thicken the soup with potatoes instead of flour.

Pinch of nutmeg
2-3 tablespoons of sour cream (optional)
Salt and lots of white pepper to taste
Chopped dill or parsley and freshly-ground black pepper to serve

Soak dried mushrooms in cold water for several hours. Chop fresh and soaked mushrooms into slices or small pieces. Put mushrooms, bay leaves, stock and a cup of the soaking liquid into a pot. Bring to a boil, then cover and reduce heat. Simmer for a good couple of hours to get that intense mushroom flavour. If you’re thickening with potatoes, add them about half way though the cooking and encourage them to break up. Sauté onions in the butter and oil until golden and tender. Add to the pot. Along with the nutmeg and seasoning. (In a small bowl, mix cornflour with a ladle or two of the hot soup and whisk until smooth—if thickening this way. Stir it into the soup.) Remove from heat and add the sour cream if you’re using it. Garnish with chopped dill or parsley and some freshly-ground black pepper.

Back in Pyongyang scientists and mycological researchers have apparently developed a fortifying mushroom drink. According to the KCNA ‘This natural drink is very effective in enhancing physical ability of sports persons and recovering from their fatigues.’ The state news agency previously informed us that North Korea’s founding father, Kim Il-sung, and his son, Kim Jong-il, both ‘worked heart and soul to provide the people with tasty nutritious mushroom’. So now you know.