Game goes well with… mushrooms!

Different types of produce and ingredients can complement the distinctive flavours of game meat. In this post chef Caroline Westmore from the Australian Mushroom Growers Association explains why the humble mushie is an ideal ingredient in cooking game.

Today fresh mushrooms are easily obtainable in all our supermarkets and fruit and vegetable markets, but this wasn’t always the case. Up till the early 1970s, locally grown mushrooms comprised only 50 to 60 per cent what was available, and the remainder were imported canned or dried mushrooms.

These days there are hundreds of mushroom farms in Australia and our commercial crop supplies 90 per cent of the fresh mushrooms on sale – and as Caroline explains, growing mushrooms is quite a science.

“They’re fairly easy to grow when you’ve got the conditions right, but there are very specific temperature and soil requirements, and mushrooms are also extremely affected by the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the air,” she says. “If you drop the carbon dioxide content, that stimulates the mushroom’s growth cycle – it’s called the ‘thunderstorm effect’, in that it’s what happens out in the forest just before a thunderstorm, and the mushrooms begin their fruiting process.”

Mushrooms are grown in beds of soil mixed with straw and manure, in special sheds which are environmentally controlled by computer. “The growing mushrooms are pasteurized, just like milk, to kill all bacteria, before they fruit into new mushroom pins,” Caroline explains. “Most of the ones we grow and eat here are different types of agaricus mushrooms – from the little button cups to the big portobello which are brown agaricus. That makes up the bulk of the Australian crop, but of course there are hundreds of different varieties.”

Shitake mushrooms, which are often available dried and used in Asian stir fries and similar dishes, attach themselves to the side of trees and grow through the bark – and there are some commercial growers of these in NSW and Tasmania. There’s also Wild Pine and Slippery Jack mushrooms, which are currently in season, along with the smaller Inoki mushrooms which are grown in little bags of soil and are extremely delicate.

“The flavour is quite different across the various types,” Caroline explains. “Generally speaking, the smaller the mushroom, the more delicate the flavour and the firmer the texture. So if you’re making a salad and want a nice crunchy texture without an overpowering taste, you’d use a small button mushroom. But with game meat you want a beautiful complementary flavour so you’d use a big portobello or large flat mushroom. You could also use in-season Wild Pine mushrooms and maybe one or two Morel mushrooms – but you would rarely use a lot of field mushrooms because they’re so strong. I would recommend sticking to the common agaricus mushrooms and adding maybe a little bit of wild mushroom for extra flavour.”

Caroline explains that mushrooms are an ideal flavour complement to game meat, because both game and mushrooms are a high source of umami – this Japanese word denotes one of the five basic tastes (the others are sweet, sour, bitter and salty) and can best be translated as “savouriness”.

“Game meat is one of the main sources of umami, and the three highest non-meat sources are mushrooms, tomato and parmesan cheese. It’s a mouthwatering, savoury taste. So mushrooms go really well with meats, but especially meats like game which also have those taste attributes. A game dish like venison with mushrooms and balsamic vinegar just tastes fabulous, or some slow-cooked game with a tomato-based sauce and mushrooms – you’ll get a really powerful, mouthwatering, warming flavour.”

Another good reason to pair mushrooms with game meat is that both are typically very low in saturated fat. “There’s no fat in mushrooms and very little fat in most game meats, so if you’re wanting to follow a low-fat diet, putting them together is a great choice. For example, you can slow-cook game meat in an oven bag without needing to add oil, and if you add mushrooms to the bag, their high water content will ensure the meal doesn’t dry out. And of course they’re also fantastic in stuffing!

“Conversely, if you want to add a little fat for flavour, mushrooms go very well with bacon in a tomato-based sauce with beef stock. And they’re also ideal for cooking with herbs which are traditional accompaniments to game meat, such as sage, thyme, and even the woodier leafed herbs like rosemary.”

So how do you identify the best quality mushrooms at the supermarket or fruit market? Caroline says to look for firmness and even colouration – “you don’t want them to be shrivelled. Have a look at their gills, the bits underneath, and make sure they’re nice and even. Mushrooms should be one even colour – if they have dark patches, it means they’ve been bruised, which often happens when people pick them up and examine them or when stores dump a fresh supply on top of older ones. Mind you, even though they’re bruised it will only affect the appearance, not the taste.”

Caroline adds that some people wash mushrooms, but this is usually unnecessary because they are grown in controlled environments and pasteurized soil. The exception of course is wild-grown mushrooms.

“If they have little flecks of dirt, just give them a brush or a quick clean with a cloth,” she suggests, “but washing them will tend to make them slimy. And there’s no need to peel them either – the skin is full of vitamin A, B and D. In fact mushrooms are the only source of plant-based vitamin D – if you look at their chemical and vitamin and mineral makeup, they’re actually much closer to meat than they are to fruit and vegetables.”

Caroline says the best way to store mushrooms is in a paper bag in the fridge – preferably on the bottom shelf, but not in the vegetable crisper. Fresh mushrooms will keep for 2-3 weeks and you can even use them past that date, because they don’t actually have a “going off” point – they’ll still be safe to eat, so you can use them as long as they’re maintaining their shape and texture.

Give mushrooms a go, try our Chilli Garlic Marsala Marinated Quail with Grilled Asparagus, Tomato, Field Mushroom and Caramelised Onions.