Mycological gastronomy: from forest to table


Delicious delicacies that include ingredients like mushrooms may not be anything new, but a restaurant with a full menu – yes, you read that right – dedicated to fungi, praising  their characteristics and freshness, may surprise some diners. Biodiversidade spoke to chef Luigi Pintarelli about mycological gastronomy and his project, the restaurant Santa Clara dos Cogumelos (Saint Claire of Mushrooms).

Have you heard of the concept of mycological gastronomy? Located inside the Santa Clara Market, in the heart of the capital, Santa Clara dos Cogumelos restaurant is the “mushroom temple in Lisbon” and the name of the place says it all: do not enter if you are not ready to taste a number  of dishes consecrated to the tasty fungi. Mushrooms hide many secrets, the Italian chef Luigi Pintarelli tells us. He picks them up himself and transforms them into the surprising flavours on the plate.

Good ideas often come when you least expect: in 2013, at the height of Portugal’s economic crisis, Luigi decided to change his life and combine two of his passions, cooking and mycology. A project was thus born which “was certainly not in fashion” at the time, he recalls. And can it change the mind of a “mycophobic country”? “In the beginning, our customers were only Lisbonners. Tourists and foreign mycophiles came later”, he explains, stating that “the originality of the proposal and the resulting curiosity did help, as there were not many new gastronomic proposals in Lisbon”.

The decision to venture into this very specific area, which he now considers to have been rather naïf in the beginning, has borne fruit and allowed Luigi to do what he likes most in the process: picking mushrooms. “In addition to the contact with nature and forests, there is something ‘magical‘ about the experience,” he tells enthusiastically. This is something he has loved since he was a child, when he learned to identify the first species of fungi. Since then, he has been wanting to know more, to deepen his knowledge and his relationship with nature, because “experience in this field is fundamental to know the habitats and to interpret the many factors that determine the fructification of mushrooms.”

Let’s get back to the table. Some restaurants now include some mushroom species in their menus but not the entire menu, whereas at Santa Clara dos Mushrooms restaurant you can find all kinds of mushrooms, from the best known to many others, different and new to the palate. Of all the dishes being served – the Santa Clara risotto, with dehydrated Boletus edulis and Cratellus cornucopioides (the trumpets of death), to humus with Lactarius deliciosus and pomegranate molasses, to the mixture of more than 15 wild species (among them Russula, Amanita, Calocybe, Armillaria, Cantharellus, Boletus) with creamy polenta, Parmesan and chestnuts – Luigi highlights a “more rustic and less gourmet option: a slow stew of many different ‘minor’ species. Even after hours of cooking, the different textures can be felt and you can sense and identify the different species”.

Mycological gastronomy changes throughout the year

Before venturing into mushroom picking, it is important to realize that the right season results from the combination of some factors such as the latitude and the amount of rainfall after the summer. In November, the main time of fructification, we can check the ground to see if the weather conditions of the previous months were the right ones.

It is precisely until that time, at the beginning of autumn, that thermophilic species bear fruit, until the beginning of cold weather, when new species start bearing fruit throughout the winter until the beginning of January. There is indeed a direct and unbreakable relationship between the aforementioned factors and the availability of fungi in each season of the year.

Luigi tells us how the seasons influence the habitats in which they proliferate and  the species he picks and the dishes he cooks at the restaurant.

Winter/spring |
Amanita ponderosa Amanita ponderosa, a species also known as Silarca in Portuguese, can be found in the south of the country and, according to the chef, it is a “very ‘technical’ species that requires experience and a lot of prospecting work”.

Spring/early summer | Calocybe gambosa and Morchella esculenta After the most rainy springs,you can find Boletus and Cantharellus, which Luigi does not always manage to bring to his tables. Others, such as Calocybe gambosa and Morchella esculenta, which occur in northern Portugal, are spring species and easier to catch.

Late summer | Laetiporus Sulphureus

In September “for mysterious reasons”, a parasitic species with great gastronomic potential appears, Laetiporus sulphureus.

At the end of this conversation, the question arises: mushrooms  also used to make desserts in the restaurant? The answer is: Of course! The initial reaction of customers was  “This won’t work!”, the chef recalls. But when we overcome some prejudices, “some combinations work very well”. As if doubts still persisted , Luigi thus opens the appetite of even the most reluctant: “The classic case is the Boletus that, when dehydrated, acquires an aroma close to cocoa and nuts. Others, the Cantharellus, are legendarily pre-announced in the woods for their apricot scent. ” Who can resist testing the mycological gastronomy born in the forest?