By Terry Sweeney
OK, so fungi is not the most appetizing word in your vocabulary. But like ’em or not, mushrooms have been the wild forage food of choice all the way back to ancient Greece and Rome. Mexican Aztecs used to call a very special magical mushroom the “food of the Gods” (if you don’t know what the heck they’re talking about, ask one of your old trippy hippy friends).
The only “magic mushrooms” I ever knew were the cutesy toadstools with tiny doors and windows where little people with wings lived, found on the pages of my kiddie books and which delighted me to no end. Finding an actual mushroom on my childhood plate, however, could elicit highly confrontational dinner time drama.
Eight year old me: “What is this?!”
My mother: “A mushroom.”
Me: “Quick, get it off my plate!”
Mother: “But it flew all the way here from a farm in Pennsylvania, honey.”
Me: “Well I hope it bought a round trip ticket ‘cuz I wouldn’t eat it if it was the last thing on earth!”
Cue sound effect: Stomping of little feet out of dining room.
Now a grown-up food and wine enthusiast, I can’t get enough of mushrooms and I owe Pennsylvania — still the number one grower of mushrooms in the country — an apology. A trip to my local supermarket or farmers market is never complete until I have armfuls of portabellas, buttons, shiitake, oyster mushrooms, and on the most the blessed of occasions: chanterelles.
And, of course, mushrooms and wine are my favorite pairings. However, one must definitely choose the right wine carefully.
My most favorite wine to cook mushrooms with or just plain drink with them is Spanish Rioja. And actually since the Spanish were the first to settle here in Beaufort in the late 1500s, I feel that combining the two honors the memories of the conquistadores who probably came over here looking for gold and found, rather disappointedly, mud, marshes and mosquitoes instead. (See how I just made getting drunk on Rioja and eating a big plate of wild mushrooms sauteed in hot garlicky butter seem like some sort of touching tribute to our local history? With practice, you too can pull off that kind of Happy Wino hokum!)
But really, nothing brings out the earthiness of a mushroom like the world’s most beautiful earthy wine: Rioja. The exception is the otherworldly and elegant chanterelle which can be found June and July at abundance in farmers markets now through August (depending on rainfall). With chanterelles I would choose a dry white wine, especially when using them in a risotto or scrambled eggs or on a white pizza. There’s nothing that the heavenly chanterelle can’t elevate to a higher level (except maybe an episode of “The Real Housewives of New Jersey.”)
The chanterelle aside, my favorite Spanish affordable Rioja of choice to accompany all other mushroom dishes is Marques de Caceres Rioja ($15), a sleek blend of Tempranillo, Garnacha and Graciano grapes. Its macho earthiness pairs beautifully with the wild, down and dirty, flirty fungi.
So what are you waiting for? Go have yourself some summer fungi fun! Cheers!
By Terry Sweeney