It is neither a vegetable nor a fruit, nor a kind of meat, but it has been prized as food since ancient times. Mushrooms occupy a class all their own. They are fungi and are considered by many vegetarians as not quite belonging to the plant kingdom. Mushrooms have however, been eaten by people since ancient times, especially in China, Greece and Italy. The edible part of the mushroom is the fruiting body that grows on a stalk and has a cap and gills on the underside. There are 38,000 different varieties of mushroom, of which 1,841 are edible. Some species are mildly poisonous which is why eating wild mushrooms is not advisable. The outrageously expensive truffle is also a species of edible fungus that grows under the ground near the roots of old oak trees. The most popular variety of edible mushrooms, Portobello, are known as button mushrooms when they are young and unopened. Button mushrooms are available fresh, frozen or canned. They have a mild flavour if eaten raw, but are better cooked.
An immature Portobello is known as Crimini or Italian brown because of its earthy brown colour. A full-grown Portobello is as large and brown as a burger bun. It is also called champignon, French for mushroom. Much sought-after and therefore expensive, are porcino (plural porcini) and morel mushrooms. Porcini have a meaty texture and flavour and a distinctive squat shape. Morels are conical and have a honeycombed surface. These yellow, white and grey mushrooms are ideal for stuffing and for adding piquancy to sauces and stews. Thouands of mushroom hunters in Europe and the U.S.A. fan out into the forests every year to gather morels, which grow under trees. Japanese shiitake are cultivated on oak logs and are best had in soups and stir-fries. Enoki, another Japanese mushroom with a fruity taste, resembles sprouts with long, thin stems and tiny caps. They are eaten raw in salads. Oyster mushrooms, which resemble an oyster and even taste like one, are yet another Oriental favourite. And finally, there is one mushroom that looks entirely unlike the others. Trumpet-shaped and yellow-gold in color, Chanterelle or Girolle mushrooms have a rich flavour that ranges from apricot to peppery. Mushrooms are high in fibre and low in calories, free of fat and bad cholesterol and very low in sodium. They provide several nutrients including thiamine, biotin, ascorbic acid, riboflavin, niacin and some minerals like selenium, iron, potassium and phosphorus. Here are some tips for buying, storing, cleaning and cooking mushrooms.