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Mushroom marketing magic

How do you take a sow’s ear and turn it into a silk purse? Marketing, of course. And an attractive new name. Just recall what changing the name of rapeseed into canola did for that prairie goldmine.

Before the 1980s, the portobello mushroom was unknown to the general public. It did exist; it just wasn’t considered a product that consumers would buy. This large, brown mushroom is actually the mature form of the more familiar brown button or cremini mushroom. Once a cremini cap reaches the size of four to six inches, it is deemed too old to be packaged and sold as the cremini. At this point, the gills have opened, the cap takes on a flatter appearance and the stem has become quite woody. As this Cinderella story goes, sometime in the ‘80s, someone (although no one can now put their finger on exactly who) came up with the idea of calling these unsaleable mushrooms “portobello.”

A new name alone won’t assure the success of a product. If the mushrooms didn’t taste good and fill a void in our food options, even a name that has long been associated with fabulous seaside resorts, expensive shopping districts and generally the lifestyles of the rich and famous, would have induced us to eat this huge, brown-black fungus.

But, by the early ‘90s, these large brown mushroom caps were springing up in every grocery store, not just the speciality ones, and were featured on menus in restaurants, from vegetarian to steak house. The portobello had become the favoured understudy for steak.

The portobello’s distinctive meaty texture and almost buttery flavour, which only intensifies with cooking, is the result of the mature age of the cap. With the gills opened, the cap looses much of its moisture and the flesh becomes denser and the flavour more concentrated. While this doesn’t sound as though it should make something better than its more youthful version, this is indeed a case where older is better. Like women!

 The cremini, also know as an Italian mushroom, has itself gained popularity over the past dozen years. Ten years ago, you never would have found brown mushrooms at your local grocery store, unless they were going bad. The cremini’s cousin, the white mushroom, had always been the most popular of the domestic mushroom family. The increase demand for the cremini may well be based on an incorrect assumption. We seem to have this belief that all brown foods have more nutritional value than their counterparts. This is often true as in brown bread versus white, and brown rice versus white, but this is not the case with the button mushrooms. The central difference between brown and white mushrooms is that the cremini has more flavour. They both have the same food value, containing a good amount of vitamin B and other minerals. In food dishes, they act like a sponge to soak up and retain the garlic, butter, wine and other flavouring ingredients used in a recipe.

The portobello mushroom, which also goes by the names portobella and portabellini, often serves a more principal role in meals; it is often treated as the entrée rather than the side. If eggs are a dieter’s best friends, then the portobello must be the best friend of every vegetarian and vegan who still enjoys the chewy texture of meat.

The cap can be stuffed with an endless variety of fillings and baked, or grilled whole and used as a substitute for a burger or a small steak. It can be sliced for use in sandwiches, salads, omelettes and pizza. I like portobello best when it is grilled on the BBQ, after first brushing it with balsamic vinegar and olive oil. If I had a wood-burning oven, or “forno” as they are called in trendy restaurants, I think that this would have to be the ultimate way to cook them. The natural earthy and rich flavour of the portobello could only be intensified by the infusion of wood smoke.

I suppose we should thank whoever was responsible for figuring out that they could make a buck from selling over-the-hill mushrooms.


 

Tidbit

Because mushrooms absorb everything quickly, it is not a good idea to soak them in water for any length of time. To clean, you should simply trim the dirty stem, brush off any dirt with a vegetable brush and give them a very quick rinse under water in a colander.