A bad-ass mushroom walks into a bar. Ten minutes later, the bouncer heaves him out the front door.
“What’s up, dude?” he pleads to the bouncer. “I’m just bein’ a fungi.” (Fun guy. Get it?)
Oh, and how much fun you, too, can have if you can just scare up enough shiitake, boletes and cremini mushrooms to create tarts and teaser appetizers and entrées to pair with your favorite wines.
That’s what a handful of Durango chefs did to entertain more than a hundred fungiphiles at Vectra Bank’s fourth annual Mushroom & Wine Festival, Friday and Saturday at Purgatory Resort. The weekend-long wine and mushroom workshop featured culinary events, interactive learning and an enticing foray into the wild mushrooms in our corner of the world.
The popular summer sell-out event was equal parts wine and wilderness, seasoned with practical mushroom cooking tips, including how to dissect and recreate a pot of risotto starting with a mushroom-based stock.
Part-time Colorado resident Hilary Comfort of Austin, Texas, a “virgin mushroom forager,” signed on weeks ago when the wine lover and skilled home cook saw an opportunity to learn something new during her month-long mountain vacation.
She and her husband, Dr. Shaun Comfort, are converts to mushroom hunting, thanks to the beginners’ luck of stumbling upon a perfect king bolete just 10 minutes after the group-guided foray left Dante’s at Purgatory.
Dr. Comfort, a neurologist specializing in biotechnology and artificial intelligence, was impressed.
Wild mushroom gathering is “like an Easter egg hunt” combined with a bushwhacking hike in the woods, he said. The couple will be returning for more fun next year. They’re planning on bringing a few friends and colleagues, he said.
Dr. Comfort said he was surprised how easy it was to distinguish the reddish-brown mushroom, once local mushroom hunting guide Dean Mullen pointed out its features.
“It was like a reddish-brown, nice loaf of sour dough bread, 6 to 8 inches across.”
Hilary Comfort spotted the find, nestled at the base of a pine tree. Later, during a cooking demonstration at Durango Mountain Institute’s classroom, she asked Chef Ryan Lowe of the Ore House how to best prepare this porcini-type mushroom.
Following his advice, she said she’d keep things simple, showcasing the treat with a little olive oil, salt and pepper, then grilling it alongside salmon and asparagus already on the night’s dinner menu.
Hilary Comfort was among the two dozen who watched Lowe painstakingly stir a pot of mushroom risotto, while Durango Wine Shop sommelier Lesley Ponce fielded questions and reflected upon the afternoon’s six wine pairings.
Ponce had selected the wines to pair with the food offered at Saturday afternoon’s tasting. Eolus, Seasons Grill, the Ore House, East by Southwest and the Cyprus Café joined Purgy’s in offering a selection of six hearty, small-plate appetizers ranging from gruyere and mushroom crostata to porcini mushroom risotto cakes topped with chanterelle salad. Tangy wild mushroom escabeche topped smoked trout. A reduction of wood ear, oyster and lobster mushrooms sauced a traditional elk tenderloin stroganoff.
Arguably the biggest surprise of the day was dessert: Purgy’s bread pudding featuring Palisade peaches and chanterelles served with sriracha whipped cream. And it was peaches paired with jalapeños in a sweet, yet peppery jam that topped the Ore House’s crispy oyster mushrooms, another crowd favorite.
“What grows together goes together,” Ponce said, offering practical wine and food pairing advice to the crowd.
Both reds and whites are served with mushrooms, depending on whether one wants to cleanse the palate or enhance the earthiness of the mushroom entrée.
Whites tend to be served with appetizers earlier in the meal or with a cream of mushroom soup or chowder featuring corn and mushrooms. Reds complement autumnal mushroom dishes featuring butter, garlic and more complex combinations, Ponce said. Often, personal preference rules.
Ponce echoed Lowe’s and East by Southwest’s chef Sergio Verduzco’s opinion that pairing is indeed about achieving balance, so that wine and food complement – rather than fight – each other.
Participants asked the trio where to start when marrying wine with food.
“Do you buy the dress or the shoes first?” Ponce asked rhetorically.
She starts with the wine; others might choose food.
One thing was certain: The romance between mushrooms and wine looks promising as increasing numbers of foragers and home cooks appreciate the natural bond between the two.