When spring and summer roll around, we love to use morel and porcini mushrooms. Serving morels and peas in spring, and porcini and peaches in summer feels almost required for restaurants serving 'seasonal' menus. One of our favorite specials recently was a grilled porcini and peach salad.
Ever wonder why these mushrooms have a season? Button mushrooms, portabella, shiitake mushrooms are available year round for reasonable prices at your local market. But if you happen to find morels, porcini, chanterelles, or maybe even truffles in your local market, they only appear for a week and are outrageously expensive.
So what is the difference?
The answer comes down to a simple biological division. Some mushrooms are saprotrophic. They feed on dead matter, like a dead log or bark mulch. You've probably seen them growing in the forest on your last hike. You can also "grow" these mushrooms with commercially available kits. Shiitake logs are the most common, and you plant "seeds" in the log (really pieces of the fungi), keep them watered, and grow your own mushrooms. Commercial mushroom growers can grow these kinds of mushrooms at indoor facilities pretty efficiently. This keeps the cost down, and the mushrooms available year round. Buttons, portabella, beech mushrooms, maitake, shiitake are all saprotrophs.
Other mushrooms are mycorrhizal. These mushrooms form symbiotic relationships with tree roots. The tree and the fungus exchange nutrients that the other needs. These mushroom varieties also have preferred trees, soil conditions, temperatures, moisture levels. Mushroom enthusiasts, scientists, farmers have all attempted to grow these mushrooms, but finding the right conditions has been too difficult. So these mushrooms have a specific season, grow in particular locations, and can be hard to find. Porcini, Ovoli (Amanita caesarea, the once favorite mushroom of Roman Emperor Claudius), chanterelle, matsutake, and truffles are all mycorrhizal. Which is why we pay a premium to get these mushrooms in our kitchen during their relatively short seasons.
Keep your eye out for wild mushroom specials at Shepard! (See our Instagram for up-to-the-minute info on specials). Stay tuned next week when Chef Scott gives us his secrets for cooking mushrooms, and converting the mushroom hater in your family to a mushroom lover.