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Dried cèpes: the last taste of autumn
There are two kinds of people, it appears from some recent newspaper articles, who are almost prepared to die for mushrooms. The first are harvesters of matsutake mushrooms. These have become the latest gourmet fad. Matsutake grow in the woods of British Columbia and are prized in Japan where a perfect sample of one mushroom recently sold for $100. With prices at that level, it is not surprising that many pickers pack guns for protection.

Unfortunately, at least to the untrained eye, matsutake look like amanita mushrooms, many of which have vivid names such as The Destroying Angel. They are, and there is no other way to put this, deadly.

Either way, for mushroom hunters, there is new meaning to the old song “if you go out in the woods today, prepare for a big surprise....” For most of us, it is far better to go out to a good Italian supermarket and pick a pack of dried wild mushrooms.

These mushrooms are not in any way similar to common table mushrooms which are grown in sanitized sileage in temperature and humidity controlled barns. These dried mushrooms have a strong musky taste. They are boletes, known in France as cèpes and in Italy as porcini. A small packet costs a few dollars but a little goes a long way and is wonderful in pasta or rice dishes. I adore their flavour and find that they capture that last moment of autumn just before the ground hardens and the smells of the earth disappear for another season.

There are three ways to savor them. Sold in packages, the porcini are dried and sliced thinly. If you buy them this way, wash the pieces to remove any residual sand or earth and then let them rehydrate in water. They can then be chopped and added to sauces soups or even omelettes. They can also be ground finely and used as you would any flavouring but you may find that a bit of their grit remains in the powder.

There is a commercial porcini powder but this is rarely in stores. Restaurants do buy it in bulk, however, since it is cheaper and easier to use than grinding dried mushrooms.Try asking for a small amount at your favourite Italian restaurant. Finally, there is now a commercial mushroom bullion cube on the market. It is made by Aurora. The ingredients include salt and MSG but the mushroom flavour is still pronounced. A packet of six cubes, which is enough for 12 cups of broth, sells for about $1.50.

© Barry Lazar 2000 Email Flavourguy

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