It is already past 9am by the time The Guide Istanbul meets Emre Şen, executive chef of Casa Lavanda, and Jilber Barutçiyan, our guide for the morning. They have already finished their breakfast of börek at the historical Bilice Börekçisi at the entrance of Bahçeköy, and are ready to take a trip into the wild. After a fifteen minute ride through the nearby Belgrad Forest, considered the lungs of Istanbul, we find ourselves parked at the foot of a fallen tree, surrounded by nothing but a dirt path, a small stream running peacefully through the damp earth, and the oxygen heavy air of a proper forest. This is the time when mushrooms pop their heads out of the moist, damp earth from between decomposing leaves, hungry for a bit of sun as its rays make their way through the thickly knit canopy.
Şen and two of his kitchen staff are here to collect seasonal wild mushrooms, and Barutçiyan, the mushroom connoisseur/gatherer is here to guide us through the cliffs and crevices of Belgrad Forest to discover the right kinds. Today, we’re on the lookout for two types, both of which grow once the summer is over and the first autumn rains have fallen. "There are two things mushrooms need to grow," Barutçiyan says. ‘the rain and the heat.’ Amanita Caesarea is the prize. Also known as the emperor’s mushroom, Caesar’s mushroom, the egg mushroom or the bride mushroom, it grows beneath the broad leaves of cedar, linden or chestnut trees. Found in Southern Europe and Northern Africa, Caesar’s mushroom earned this particular name as it was a favorite delicacy of early Roman rulers.
One of the few mushrooms that may be consumed raw without any adverse effects, Amanita Caesarea has a beautiful smooth red cap, and grows as high as 15 cm. Starting out as a round, white ball, the mushroom changes dramatically in shape. As it grows, it looks oddly like a brown egg protruding from its which shell before becoming a proper umbrella shape. While roaming the forest looking for their telltale bright orange caps, we ask Barutçiyan about how to tell if mushrooms are edible. “All mushrooms are edible,” Barutçiyan jokes. “But some may be your last meal.”
Some of the excitement of mushroom hunting hinges on this possibility of danger, as many mushrooms look similar to an untrained eye, but can be poisonous, or even deadly. In fact, Amanita Caesarea may easily be confused with the poisonous Amanita Muscaria, the distinct red-capped mushrooms with white dots, made famous thanks to the video game Mario Kart. In rainy weather, the white spots on top may disappear, making them look much like the Caesar’s mushroom, though with a white stem rather than yellow. As we go on talking, Barutçiyan wants it known that mushrooms do not kill nor poison through touch, or smell, only through ingestion.
All the while Şen and his sous-chefs are hard at work, finding and picking mushrooms, cleaning them with the tip of a painter’s brush and collecting them in woven baskets. After about an hour, the baskets are filled with mature and semi-mature mushrooms, some that still look like eggs, and others that have fully grown (though not so mature as to give off the stench of urine, which indicates the beginning of the rotting process.)
After Caesar’s mushrooms, there are the chanterelles. In Turkish, chanterelle mushrooms take on varying names according to the regions where they’re collected. In the region of Kastamonu, they’re called sarı kız (yellow girl). They are tavuk mantarı (chicken mushroom) around the city of Giresun, and kaz ayağı (goose foot) in the city of Kırklareli. underneath moist autumn leaves whenever we catch sight of something yellow. Once Şen has decided they’ve collected enough, we hop back into our cars, ready for the next phase.
Back in the kitchen, the collected mushrooms are sorted and cleaned. Şen also brings out porcinis they had collected beforehand, which are added to the pile, ready to cook. Last to come out of the kitchen fridge are uncinatum black truffles, collected in Bulgaria. Şen picks up a wide pan, places halved porcinis, chanterelles, Caesar’s mushrooms and finely slices the truffles on top. He then adds olive oil, fresh wild thyme sprigs, a few cloves of garlic, salt and pepper and places the pan into a Neapolitan pizza oven. Cooked with wood fire for approximately 5 minutes at 350 degrees Celsius, the mushrooms turn soft, golden and emanate a beautiful fragrance.
The first dish that arrives is Şen’s take on a Piemontese carne cruda (raw meat dish) with sliced raw Caesar’s mushrooms, the meat flavored with raw egg yolk, chopped chives and a touch of red peppers. The combination of meat and mushrooms has always been a winner, but presenting and combining them both raw works wonders. Then it’s a wild mushroom pizza, in which he uses the oven-baked mushrooms.
The real highlight of Şen’s mushroom dishes is the wild mushroom ribeye, the dish in which he has again made use of chives as well as parsley to further heighten the flavors of caesar’s and chanterelle mushrooms, now drizzled for the second time with olive oil. This is followed by homemade pappardelle with wild mushrooms, onto which Şen shaves an 18 months old Parmigiano Reggiano.
Şen continues to prepare similar dishes at both his restaurants throughout the winter, according to the availability of wild mushrooms. Later in November, he may replace the Caesar mushrooms with porcini, and the chanterelles may give way to black trumpet mushrooms, all of which add a distinct flavor character to the dishes they are part of. Once the weather gets too cold and snow or frost takes over the land, mushrooms are finished, giving way to high quality white and black truffles (usually after November, until February) which grow beneath the earth. “Istanbul has a special climate,” Barutçiyan concludes. “It is where three climate zones collide, allowing for a wealth of mushrooms to grow.”
Picks from Casa Lavanda’s mushroom/truffle dishes: Chestnut soup with morel mushrooms. Poached egg and goat cheese purée with black trumpet mushroom or white Alba truffle (according to seasonal availability). Scallops and cauliflower with sliced white truffles.
Casa Lavanda Boutique Hotel & Restaurant is located outside of Istanbul at Ulupelit Köyü Seçkin Sokak No.2, Şile, T: (0216) 736 56 40.
Jilber Barutçiyan may be reached through his Facebook community page Mantar Dostları (Mushroom Friends).
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