The ancient Egyptians believed mushrooms were a food fit only for a Pharaoh. France has been growing them since the 1600s (some accounts have King Louis XIV as the first mushroom farmer).
But in the U.S., we didn’t really taste a mushroom until the late 1890s. That’s when an enterprising bunch of Quaker flower growers decided to utilize some empty space in greenhouses that were growing carnations.
They had to import spores from Europe, and what they started in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania all those years ago is still flourishing today. In fact, half of the mushrooms eaten in the U.S. still come from that tiny town.
But while you may think you know mushrooms by what you find in the supermarket, you really don’t know them at all.
Because the size, shapes and colors – not to mention the price — of edible mushrooms go way beyond those cute little white button ones or great big portabellas you toss on the grill.
“Simple” supermarket varieties include: Criminis, also called “baby portabellas.” These are the mushrooms of veggie burgers and pasta sauce. White buttons are what usually top pizzas and are tossed in salads. (In French they sound really fancy – they’re called champignons). Shiitake mushrooms are the most elegant variety you can easily buy. They have a curled cap that needs to be handled delicately, and a woodsy flavor that is easily influenced by what you add them to. Portabellas (the ‘grown-up’ kind) with their large and flavorful caps are perfect for marinating and grilling.
But let’s get a little more adventuresome, not to mention pricy:
- The mysterious, elusive morel: A spring fungi that people hunt for the high price they command — fresh ones sell for around $50 a pound (dried are around $200 a pound) – or for their health benefits. Morels are high in vitamins D, B and iron.
- Maitake or Hen of the woods: Another pricey variety, these grow at the base of trees and are a favorite in Asian cooking. You can sauté them in olive oil and they’re perfect for stir fries and sauces. And yes, some say they do taste like chicken! But maitakes have also been looked at outside the kitchen. Numerous studies have shown they can stimulate the immune system and inhibit the growth of cancer cells.
- Truffles, the underground delicacy: The most expensive mushrooms of all, truffles can command close to $500 per pound. And yes, pigs can sniff them out (their aroma is similar to the scent of male pig sex hormones) but dogs have been found to be better truffle hunters as they are less likely to eat what they uncover. And the “taste” in a truffle comes more from its aroma than its actual flavor.
- Kombucha tea: People have been drinking tea made from kombucha culture for eons. And kombucha, while often called a mushroom, really isn’t. The drink is a lot like sourdough bread, made from a starter culture that’s often called a “mushroom.” Over the last ten years these fermented, slightly fizzy, teas, which were first found in health food stores, can now be gotten just about everywhere. While the research is limited as to its ability to fight cancer, it does contain high amounts of antioxidants and vitamins, which could be what makes it a great energy boost. Plus, it’s delicious!
But just remember: where mushrooms are concerned, the tasty, edible varieties are often difficult for even knowledgeable people to tell apart from toxic ones. As a famous mycologist once said at a mushroom expert get-together, “You’re all here today because your ancestors knew what a poisonous mushroom looked like.”