In recognition of the autumn season and National Mushroom Month in October, Produce Business UK takes a closer look at one of the more unusual mushrooms making its way over to the UK to grace our restaurants’ plates
Within the mushroom world of Latin terms and random nicknames, the lobster mushroom has a very good name. It’s exactly what it implies – it’s a mushroom that emulates a lobster. That’s right, it looks like shellfish and some say it even smells a bit like fish. It also keeps its colour, taste and firm texture during cooking; offering a host of fun-filled recipe possibilities for chefs.
Other names: Hypomyces lactifluorum.
How it grows: Technically it’s not a mushroom but a parasitic ascomycete fungus, although thankfully ‘mushroom’ sounds a little better on the menu. Particularly rare, it’s created by chance as the fungus takes over the natural growth of the strictly autumnal russula or lactarius mushroom. Looking a little like the hedgehog mushroom (otherwise known as a Pied De Mouton – Mutton’s Foot), it has tiny pimples instead of gills and a flat and firm body, with hardly any stem.
The parasitic fungus genes interlace with the original mushroom, distorting it and almost twisting it into a trumpet shape, making it look like lobster meat. Like a lot of mushrooms or fungi, russulas or lactarius fruit grow around trees as their eco-systems and body under the soil works in conjunction with tree roots. Unfortunately, the mushrooms can be distorted so much that the soil gets trapped on the top of the mushroom and embedded as it grows, making some of them impossible to clean properly. The parasitic intervention is completely random, but they can be found wherever russula or lactarius mushrooms grow.
Origin: With no history of production in the UK so far, the lobster mushroom (or the fungus that takes over the russula or lactarius mushroom) is usually found growing under hemlock trees in the northern hemisphere, in particular the USA (usually within the Pacific Northwest), Canada and Europe.
Season: They can be found as early as mid-summer and usually finish by the first frosts in October. But their main availability is September and October.
Trade potential: “There aren’t huge volumes out there and at the moment, commercially, it’s tiny,” says a mushroom supplier to restaurants. “Last year was the first time I had ever been offered them in more than 20 years of trading, but these things grow gradually and I can certainly get chefs to buy them. Wild mushrooms just keep getting more and more popular as chefs continue to change their menus daily and work seasonally. A good chef develops a menu according to what is on offer and this is certainly an interesting wild mushroom to include.”
A hardy mushroom, the lobster variety is easier to transport and deliver, and it’s shelf life extends to two weeks in some cases. But because it’s troublesome to find, it’s on the way to becoming as expensive as actual lobster, with restaurants buying them for £25-£30 per kilogramme.
Nutrition: These mushrooms contain carbohydrates and feature a small amount of protein and fibre. They offer 20 calories per 6 grams.
Preparation: As wild mushrooms go, lobsters are moderately easy to clean, although the odd one can be caked in mud on the top and when this happens the only option is to wash it in cold water. That’s fine for these mushrooms as they are one of the harder specimens in the forest, so they don’t absorb much water before they are cooked. If they aren’t too dirty, they can be cleaned just like a hedgehog mushroom: brushed lightly first to remove loose dirt and then cleaned with a damp cloth, carefully rubbing to remove the dirt. There are no gills to clean, so the ‘pimples’ that are visible can be wiped clean.
Chefs like roasting or grilling the lobster mushroom, sometimes whole. It keeps its colour completely whilst also shedding a slight orange oil when cooking. It’s a strong dye, so the colour can permeate other food and cookery equipment even just through cutting. In fact, lobster mushrooms have been used to dye wool, fabrics and paper in the past. They can also be dried and hold both their colour and aroma, although they will keep if refrigerated for a week-and-a-half to two weeks. They can also be dried and ground into a powder to use as a rub or flavouring in cooking.
Eating: Due to its shellfish-like nature, the lobster mushroom is an obvious accompaniment to lobster, crab and seafood. It’s mostly paired with flavours that complement these foods, like lemon, dill, tarragon and cream. If the original host mushroom was a lactaire, some say that the mushroom has a peppery taste, but there’s no way of identifying the original host before you cook it. Its texture is very meaty and its firmness holds during most forms of cooking. As with all wild mushrooms, it’s advisable not to eat lobster mushrooms raw and to fully cook them before eating.
Chef fans: Lynn Crawford, Josh Hebert, Kevin Meehan, Tal Ronnen, Scot Jones, David Schmidt, Carl Seacat and Katie Weinner.
Dishes: Lobster mushroom benedict; faux fruits de mer (Tal Ronnen and Scot Jones); onion tournedos stuffed with lobster mushrooms; pappardelle alfredo with lobster mushrooms; lobster and chanterelle mushroom soup; and spaghetti carbonara.