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.

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