If I had to choose one item among the best foods to forage for in autumn, mushrooms would certainly come first. Not that I am a good mushroom harvester. I dread picking the wrong ones and poisoning my guests with mushrooms I have picked. When I lived in Paris, I loved wandering among the vegetable stalls in my street market and smelling all those multi-coloured fungi. My choice is much more restricted now because of where I live, on Islay, which means that I can only obtain chesnut or button mushrooms, but you can still do a lot with these. You can also achieve scrumptious pairings with the right whiskies.
I am often asked about what is the best whisky to pair with mushrooms. It is totally dependent on the variety of the mushroom and the way it's going to be cooked. It is also very dependent on what ingredients are used in the recipe. All of these are crucial.
Let's go through the most well-known ones and imagine some tasty preparations. I will skip the black truffle which would require a separate feature. Sometimes known as the 'diamond of gastronomy' which is how the French 19th Century writer Brillat-Savarin described it. It offers the ultimate luxury fungi experience. Not as out of reach as you may think but still expensive. One Autumn black truffle at 30 grammes would set you back about £35.00.
Button mushrooms are the small white cultivated mushrooms that can be found in all shops. When brown, they are called chestnut or cremini mushrooms. They have an earthy and mild taste.
I personally prefer the brown mushrooms which I find firmer and tastier. The cremini are immature portobellos. These are excellent mushrooms with fish and seafood. Portobello mushrooms are large and have a fuller flavour and a meaty texture. These are Ideal with meats, pastas or risottos.
Porcino (or boletus, cèpe in French) is the king of wild mushrooms. They can be found dried all year long but they are better fresh. The season is short. Look out for them in your market. They have a full, earthy, meaty and woody flavour and also a mucilaginous texture, which makes them suitable for sauces, soups and omelettes.
Morel is a must for gourmets. But there are morels and morels. I am not fond of the American ones, big, cultivated and tasteless. Nor am I a fan of dried morels. I crave fresh, wild morels. Very expensive, rare and only available for a few weeks (between March and May), but worth looking for. They must be eaten cooked as they are toxic when raw. That spongy, honeycomb like mushroom is very spongy (and hard to clean!). Its earthy, nutty and smoky flavour is enhanced in a creamy sauce. It is excellent with white meats (chicken, veal) and in omelettes or pastas.
Chanterelles are called girolles in French. They have a trumpet-shaped form (but don't confuse them with 'trompettes de la mort', another non toxic mushroom). They are usually wild but some are cultivated. They have an exquisite nutty and fruity flavour and a somewhat chewy texture. To avoid them getting rubbery, always add them to the preparation less than ten minutes before the end of the cooking.
Now that we have gathered all these wonderful fungi from the woods and fields in our basket, what are we going to cook? And which whisky will we select to go with which mushroom?
Generally speaking the earthy and nutty taste of mushrooms offers an easy 'bridge' with whisky. I know that a lot of recipes with mushrooms include garlic but I dont allow garlic in my kitchen (I must have been a vampire in a previous life!). If you want a tiny hint of garlic flavour in your dish, a few drops of white truffle oil will be perfect.
Now let's consider the single malts. As usual, I will look more at the aromatic profile than the provenance.
Single malts matured in bourbon casks will match with creamy sauces, white meats, fish or seafood. Pasta dishes featuring langoustines, lobsters, and any seashells will be perfect. As will chanterelles, button mushrooms or morels. Or any seafood dish.
For example, pan-fry a few scallops, then deglaze the pan with crème fraîche, add chopped morels, a hint of lime zest and before turning the gas off, a tablespoon of Glenlivet Nadurra. Serve with mashed parsnips sprinkled with toasted pine nuts.
Another simple suggestion. Add chopped chestnut mushrooms to your waffle dough. Maybe with a little parmesan. An excellent nibble for the aperitif with a young single malt (The Laddie, Glenfiddich 12 Years Old, or Glenmorangie 10 Years Old).
Single malts matured totally or partly (or finished) in sherry casks will pair with meaty mushrooms and sauces cooked with red wine or port. For instance, a venison saddle cooked in red port and topped with sautéed porcino. They can also be served as a side vegetable wrapped in filo pastry with matured cheddar (for adding a crunchy texture). Here is an interesting combination - prepare a stuffing with chanterelles, shallots, spices, walnuts and a little black pudding. With this stuffing, stuff the pigeon or guineafowl and then roast them and serve with grilled porcino on a skewer. Melt a slice of foie gras in the rich sauce. To marry with a Dalmore Alexander III, a Glendronach 15 Years Old Revival, a BenRiach Portwood finished or an Aberlour 18 Years Old or one of these delicious old Linkwoods from Gordon & MacPhail.
Younger versions of Aberlour (10 Years Old, or the Double Cask matured) can accompany a mushroom soup. I like the cream of mushroom and grilled bacon that was featured at one of the Aberlour whisky dinners I hosted during the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival some years ago. It went down an absolute treat.
Raw portobello mushrooms will also star in a salad, mixed with oranges and smoked duck breast.
I have not mentioned peated whiskies. They are not easy to pair with mushrooms. They will find a match with the earthy-woody ones but it will be more difficult with chanterelles or morels. They tend to dominate the mushrooms flavour.
Anyway, there is already a large scope of selection with the unpeated whiskies. Enough to have fun(gi) with!