I just had the pleasure of going to a book reading by Eugenia Bone, the author of “Mycophilia: Revelations from the Weird World of Mushrooms”. I loved mushrooms before the talk, and now after being regaled with tales of mushroom hunting and the science of mushrooms, I’m even more intrigued by them.
Here are a few fun facts that she shared with us about mushrooms:
- A “mushroom” is the spore-bearing fruit-y body of a fungus. To give an analogy, a mushroom is to the fungus as an apple is to the apple tree.
- Fungi are not plants nor animals, they’re in their own Kingdom (Fungi). There are estimated to be 1.5 million species, and only 5% of them have been identified.
- Every plant in the world has a fungal symbiont living in their cell walls. We humans even have fungi living inside our bodies, but most of the time, it’s a commensal relationship. It only gets bad when the fungus overgrows (like dandruff) or our immune system weakens.
- The largest organism in the world is a mushroom. There’s a single specimen of Armillaria solidipes covering 3.4 square miles in the Malheur National Forest in Oregon, and it’s estimated to be 2,400 years old.
- Fungus can take apart anything that is carbon-based. There’s even a radiotrophic fungus that feeds off the gamma radiation in the Chernobyl nuclear plant.
The white mushroom and crimini mushroom are the same mushroom (Agaricus bisporus) - the only difference is that the white mushrooms are picked for their whiteness, but the taste should be the same. The portobello mushroom is the mature version of that mushroom and does taste different because the mature spore has a taste to it (a delicious one, in my opinion).
Raw mushrooms are indigestible, because the cell walls are made of chitin, the same fiber that makes up lobster shells. You can eat raw (non-poisonous) mushrooms, but your body can’t derive any nutritional value from them since it can’t take them apart. If you want to get any of the good stuff from mushrooms, cook them up.
When cooked, mushrooms are very nutritional. They’re low in calories, low in sodium, and have a high protein content (20-30% of their weight). They’re often used by vegetarians looking for ways to replace protein in their diet. Just remember they’re mostly water (70%), so you need to eat a whole lot of them to get the good stuff out of them.
The most expensive food in the world is a mushroom, the white truffle of Italy. In 2010, two white truffles weighing just under 3 lbs sold for $330,000 in auction.
If you see a bottle of truffle oil in the store, it’s probably a ripoff — mostly olive oil, with a bit of truffle-flavored additive thrown in.
Are you now mad about mushrooms? Pick some up from your local market, or if you’re feeling adventurous, join a mycological society near you and join them on a wild mushroom hunt.