I have always loved mushrooms. I eat them whole, sliced, diced, raw, fried, pickled, whatever – never had one I didn’t like. As a kid I’d buy myself a punnet of button mushrooms with my pocket money and just scoff them – which I know is weird for a lot of you, but they really just float my boat and always have.
Now, I know that there are a few of you out there who have some seriously strong negative feelings about mushrooms – I can totally understand why, mushrooms are weird and freaky and you probably hate for the same reasons that I love them. I love the textures, the earthiness – I love the intense flavour of porcini, sweet and mellow chantarelles and the Asian varieties blow my mind with their variety.
The first weird thing about mushrooms is that they are neither plant nor animal, they are their own entire thing, and there is over 3000 types. The stuff we see is the tip of the iceberg, it all goes on under ground and inside plants and trees all year round before they pop out in their full, albeit brief, splendour to get it on every warm and wet autumn.
Their freaky weirdness make mushrooms nutritionally unique. Part of the reason is that, like animals, mushrooms are able to convert sunlight into Vitamin D – which could combat rickets, depression and S.A.D. All that rummaging around in the mulchy organic matter means that our friend the fungi is jammed packed with minerals like magnesium, iron and selenium too. Many varieties have antiseptic and other medicinal properties – they are basically a peculiar kind of miracle!
At pao! you will mainly encounter delicate little enoki mushrooms and the king of Asian fungi, the glorious shiitake. The earliest written record of shiitake cultivation is seen in the Records of Long Quan County compiled by He Zhan in AD 1209 during the Southern Song Dynasty. Shiitake mushrooms naturally grow in groups on the decaying wood of deciduous trees particularly shii, chestnut, oak, maple, beech and a few more. Its natural distribution includes warm and moist climates in southeast Asia.
However, one type of high-grade shiitake is called donko in Japanese and dōnggū in Chinese, literally “winter mushroom”. Another high grade of mushroom is called huāgū in Chinese, literally “flower mushroom”, which has a flower-like cracking pattern on the mushroom’s upper surface. Both of these are produced at lower temperatures. Which means that it is very possible to grown even up here in Northern Europe. You can buy shiitake kits online and in some garden centres – I will be investing!