The word ‘fungus’ doesn’t exactly whet the appetite, though ‘mushroom’ is a different matter altogether. For centuries, mushrooms have had a pivotal role in both Asian and European cuisine. The mushroom lends itself to all manner of dishes, from mushroom and chicken yakitori to barbecue mushroom salads and rich ragu, thanks to its diverse texture and flavour.
‘The thing that makes the mushroom so beautiful is its versatility,’ agrees Giulio Brignola, brand chef at Carluccio’s. ‘You can use it with anything: it’s beautiful in a sauce, it’s beautiful raw; if you want to pickle, you can conserve it. At the end of the day, you can make anything with it. It’s also beautiful with fish. You can create fantastic combinations. It adds that extra touch.’
So where can the best mushrooms be found? ‘We have a huge range of mushrooms in Italy, in our mountains and valleys,’ he continues. ‘Where I come from, in Etruria, there’s a very particular type of mushroom called ‘ferlengo’ – it’s a mushroom that grows in very few parts of Italy. We use ferlengo in many things, especially pickles.’
Like most of the food we eat in Dubai, our mushrooms are imported from Europe and Asia. Now is the time to pick them and, while they generally grow wild, Giulio concedes that mushrooms can be cultivated in cool, dark caves to grow all year round.
During our chat, Giulio’s wild gesticulations bespeak his passion for the ingredient. But then it’s no surprise considering the integral part that mushrooms play in Italian culinary culture – so much so that Antonio Carluccio, Giulio’s employer and the name behind the Carluccio’s brand, has written a book dedicated to these tasty toadstools. Complete Mushroom Book: The Quiet Hunt outlines where to find them and how to use them in everyday cooking.
But for Giulio, and countless other chefs like him, the king of the mushrooms has to be porcini. ‘It has the most versatility, but you need to pick it at the right time, when the consistency is nice. In northern Italy you can find this black-head porcini, which is beautiful.’
The Quiet Hunt, Dhs150, available at Carluccio’s, The Dubai Mall (04 434 1320).
Giulio’s mushroom 101
The Italian chef briefs Time Out on his favourite mushroom varieties.
‘This one is from Korea. The stalk is very chewy, so we get rid of it. It’s very strong in taste and is better to cook than eat raw, because it doesn’t have too much water. When you cook it, it becomes very fragrant. Shiitake mushrooms work well with fish.’
‘This variety is well-known as a soft mushroom. It’s always part of a dish, but never eaten alone. It needs support – it’s a team player. In the wild, the head is brown and [the fragrance and taste] is more powerful. Otherwise, the oyster mushroom is fairly plain, but you can make nice pickle with it using vinegar, white wine or water – you boil it and dry it, then add some truffle oil and keep for a year. The pickle can be used with mozzarella or sun-dried tomatoes.’
‘This is the king of mushrooms, and the one that everybody knows. Everybody uses it, in French cuisine, Italian cuisine… This mushroom has such flavour, you don’t need too much. It’s beautiful when fresh, but when it’s dry it’s powerful, so you can use it to make stock, risotto or pasta.’
‘The truffle is a tuber, so it grows underground, but in spirit it’s the same as the mushroom. For me, truffle [oil] should be the last touch [in a dish] – just on top of pasta, for example. Add it whenever you want something a little bit special.’