Every autumn I have one thing on my mind. Come late-February / early-March when I begin to watch the weather closely my husband knows that soon I'll be announcing 'it's time we took a drive to Oberon' (on the other side of Sydney's Blue Mountains). This is sometimes (usually) followed by a loud sigh. The journey is almost a six hour round trip (most of which I must admit I spend asleep), and there is certainly no guarantee of mushrooms at the end of it...
Not all mushroom seasons are equal - and surely there is nothing better to help one appreciate just what it means to eat seasonally. Last year we made this trek thrice; each time returning with a car boot full of empty boxes. The last time, I reluctantly conceded that I would have to wait another year to enjoy a morning of foraging followed by a plate of pine mushrooms and pappardelle.
I was still in Italy early this April, and every time hubby called and told me of all the rain in Sydney, my mind wandered to the mushrooms that would inevitably be blooming on the forest floor*. Almost as soon as I arrived home, still jet-lagged, bags only just unpacked: I set an alarm for 5:00am, made coffee, packed a couple of vegetable boxes and paring knives and we were off. It always feels a little surreal leaving the house when the sun hasn’t yet come up (and the girls are still asleep in the coop), but by the time we reach the woods, glimmers of sunlight have begun to break through the forest canopy warming the crisp air: we are hopeful.
In a good year, we can see the mushrooms’ distinctive caps poking above the pine needles as the car pulls up to our spot. And this was (is) a good year. Within half an hour we had almost filled a box (roughly 1 kilo) with pretty, orange Lactarius deliciosus (commonly known as pine mushrooms or saffron milk caps). Still, the sight of another delicious mushroom never ceases to make one’s heart skip a beat, and as we were drawn by such sightings deeper and deeper into the woods, I thought to myself (again) that I should have made time to go to Pompeii where I have read that there are frescoes depicting the earliest known illustrations of fungi – and none other than Lactarius deliciosus. Next year, I tell myself as we make our way back to where we left the car and my mind wanders to the pasta I will make as soon as we are home.
There is nothing quite as rewarding as a plate of pasta made with your own eggs; mushrooms that were on the forest floor merely a few hours ago; and herbs picked from just outside the back door. But pine mushrooms are increasingly available at farmers’ markets and even our local greengrocer, and shop-bought pasta can be almost as good as home-made. If you do fancy a little foraging (and there are still a couple of weeks in the season), you should always be careful to cut the mushroom at the stem just above the base**, and try not to be tempted to take more than you will cook over the next couple of days – I like to think that that forager before me did the same thing.
*Lactarius deliciosus were transported to Australia as spores on pine saplings imported from Europe many years ago. In Germany, they are prized as one of the most delicious of all fungi, and they’re a common sight at French markets.
**By cutting the mushrooms just above the base (rather than pulling them from the ground) they will appear in the same place the following year.
Pine Mushrooms and Pappardelle
250g pine mushrooms, stems removed
60g unsalted butter
Extra virgin olive oil
2 large garlic cloves, sliced
1 small French shallot, finely diced
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
50ml chicken or vegetable stock (optional)
Juice and rind of 1 lemon
30ml pouring cream
A few sprigs of fresh thyme or 3-4 large sage leaves, shredded
250-300g fresh egg pappardelle
Marinated goats cheese, to serve
First prepare the mushrooms by gently brushing them with a small piece of damp paper towel to remove any grit or pine needles. Slice the larger ones into strips about 4-5mm wide, and cut any little button mushrooms into halves or thirds.
Heat butter and a splash of olive oil in a large, heavy bottomed frying pan, and gently fry the garlic and shallots until very soft, but barely coloured. Add prepared mushrooms and season generously with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Cook, uncovered over medium heat being careful not to break up the mushrooms as you stir them. At this stage you may like to add a little chicken or vegetable stock (or even white wine) – but I usually don’t bother unless the mushrooms are particularly dry. After about 10 minutes, test one of the mushrooms for doneness – once they are cooked through but still firm enough to hold their shape, stir through lemon juice and rind, to taste; cream; thyme or sage and check the seasoning.
Meanwhile cook the pappardelle in plenty of boiling, salted water until al dente – it should only take 2-3 minutes. As soon as it’s cooked, remove the pasta from the water using a pair of tongs to add it straight to the fraying pan with the mushrooms. Give everything a good toss to coat every strand and serve immediately with marinated goats cheese crumbled over the top.
C(h)ook’s notes –
- Mushrooms dislike being washed; they are like little sponges and will drink up any moisture. You should be able to remove most unwanted grit and dirt with a piece of damp paper towel, but a pastry brush can also come in handy
- The pan needs to be large enough not to overcrowd the mushrooms and to accommodate the cooked pasta before serving
- Other ways to use pine mushrooms –
- Larger pine mushrooms are delicious stuffed with herbs (thyme, rosemary, parsley and sage all work well) and garlicky butter before being cooked over a hot barbeque;
- They make a wonderful breakfast served on toast and perhaps with a soft poached egg;
- Cook a ragu of pine mushrooms in red wine and serve over soft polenta with plenty of butter and parmesan;
- Pine mushrooms are perfect for pickling and this way can be used long after your morning in the woods.