Monday, October 09, 2006

Mushrooms vs. Whole Foods

Mushrooms 1 : Whole Foods 0
(*See below)

So, I went to my last mushroom identification class last night. It was great fun! Instead of the regular instructor, we had a more informal class led by a young lady (err.. I'm really great with names, as usual), who went through some slides of the common mushrooms people collect around Seattle. This was interspersed with anectdotes of past foraging trips, interesting questions and suggestions from the class, and lots or ardent scribbling of notes. (Everyone wanted to know where to find mushrooms easily around suburbia, and good places for chanterelles...)

The class then moved into high gear when a German guy arrived - he was to be the cooking expert and do some cooking demos and tastings. He was obviously knowledgable and very entertaining to listen to - picture a cross between Sammy Hagar and Wolfgang Puck and that's him. He's travelled extensively and obviously knows his 'shrooms, but is far more laid-back about identification - you can tell he's more into eating them, instead of finding and identifying rare inedible varieties.

Coversation inevitably drifted towards the more gourmet, expensive and famous mushrooms that grow around here: chanterelles [2] and matsutakes.

Chanterelles are pretty tasty, and their texture is amazing - crunchy, chewy, almost rubbery. We had a delicious dish of sauteed chanterelles with shallots, garlic and cream during the class. Apparently it is very easy to find them around here, so I will have to try and forage some now that I have a decent idea of where to look, and how to spot the imposters.

I must admit I'm not familiar with matsutakes at all, beyond faint recognition of the name. You don't often see them on the menu outside high-end Japanese restaurants, but they're apparently *really* popular in Japan around fall. Since a nematode has sharply reduced the Japanese red pine population in the last 50 years, most matsutakes eaten in Japan are imported. Many come from the Pacific NW. Others come from China, Tibet, Korea, and recently they were discovered in Sweden.

Apparently the best way to learn how to identify matsutakes is to smell one. The smell is unique (Wikipedia describes it as "magnificently spicy, similar to cinnamon") and combined with their look is a good way to seperate them from non-edible and poisonouse look-alikes. Some of the more high-end food stores sell matsutakes, so keep an eye out for them and give them a sniff next time you see them.

Armed with this bit of advice, I stopped at the new Whole Foods in Sammamish on the way home (hey, it's right there!). I went in and luckily they had matsutakes! (I think they were labelled "common matsutake" - all medium-large and fully opened). I gave some a sniff, and found them milder and more perfumed than the Wikipedia description implies. More like a spicy nail varnish, maybe... I could probably do with a second sniffing opinion to be sure I got an accurate impression of the smell... (Interestingly, these matsutakes were reasonably cheap at $30/lb).

* Now on to some bitching about this new Whole Foods:

  • No paper bags for the gourmet mushrooms??! I'm not paying $30/lb for matsutakes and then putting them in a plastic bag! Even QFC and Safeway generally know to have paper bags available for the loose mushrooms.
  • Mis-labeled 'shrooms: There was a sign for chicken of the woods that seemed to be referring to white straw-like mushrooms. While I wasn't sure what the white ones were, I knew they weren't chicken of the woods... Next to these were the actual chicken of the woods, which were signed as lobster mushrooms. Hmm...

Is it just me, or is this the "Whole Foods that foodies forgot"?

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