Loamy, earthy, musky, meaty, even nutty.
Those are the typical flavor characteristics of most mushrooms.
But the delicate, fairy-tale-named candy cap is no ordinary fungus. And its mind-boggling taste and fragrance are inexplicably those of maple syrup.
This rare wild mushroom, native to the coasts of California, Washington and Oregon, is a favorite of restaurant chefs, particularly pastry chefs, who like to infuse its beguiling flavor in everything from cookies to cheesecakes to crèmes bru^lées. Now is the time to look for them on select restaurant menus and in a few Bay Area stores. But hurry, because the season for these amazing mushrooms is extremely short.
``It's something very special and unique in the food world, and something very Pacific Northwest,'' says Todd Spanier, owner of Belmont's King of Mushrooms, which sells more than 75 species of mushrooms, including candy caps. ``It's like our little truffle.''
Like truffles, candy caps grow only underneath certain trees. There are two species of candy caps: the Rufous or L. Rufulus, which can be found under live oaks on the coast; and the Lactarius Fragilis, which grows under tan oaks and Douglas firs. If you break the gills of candy caps, they will exude tiny droplets of a latex-like liquid that looks almost like low-fat milk. But before you're tempted to pick your own, be warned that candy caps closely resemble another mushroom, yellow-staining milk caps, which are poisonous.
Also, like truffles, candy caps are costly. If you can find them fresh, most likely at Monterey Market in Berkeley or Draeger's in Menlo Park, Los Altos or San Mateo, they will be about $20 or more a pound. King of Mushrooms sells them dried for $7 for half an ounce. Like saffron, though, a little goes a long way, so you don't need much.
Carlos Sanchez, pastry chef of Parcel 104 in Santa Clara, used them for the first time at a special mushroom-and-pinot-noir dinner late last year. When the executive chef first asked him to use a mushroom in a dessert, Sanchez thought he was crazy.
``I was scared,'' says Sanchez, who ended up using the candy caps in a blondie and in ice cream. ``It's the first time I've used a mushroom this way. It was a challenge and something different. And it was fun because people tasted it and wondered what was in it.''
Indeed, most people assumed Sanchez had put maple syrup in his dessert. Although the mushroom's rich, sweet, pungent aroma is most often associated with that of the pancake-breakfast staple, Spanier thinks it's more like Malt-O-Meal. Others have likened its fragrance to curry. When dried, the mushroom's sweetness and aroma are even more heightened.
The candy cap season usually starts sometime between November and January and lasts only one to four weeks. This season, Spanier expects to pick a couple of hundred pounds of the amber-colored candy caps, which range in size from a dime to a silver dollar. That may seem like a lot, but just consider that he picks 1,000 pounds a week of chanterelles. And it takes about 14 pounds of fresh candy caps to yield just 1 pound dried.
Spanier ends up drying most of his candy caps because their shelf-life is so short. The fresh ones have to be used the day they're picked or else they start to blacken and mold. Never eat them raw because they may cause an allergic reaction in some people. Just use a damp cloth to wipe the fresh ones clean before using. And check the stems for worms.
Using mushrooms won't turn a pastry into health food. But Spanier notes that most mushrooms are good sources of protein, minerals and amino acids.
Mezze restaurant in Oakland uses candy caps year-round, and currently has a vanilla-bean pork chop on the menu that sits atop a mound of candy cap risotto. Chez TJ in Mountain View and Cafe Marcella in Los Gatos also have featured candy caps on their menus.
Nick Difu, executive chef of Cafe Marcella, first used the mushrooms three years ago. He admits the dried candy caps sat in the walk-in for a month because he wasn't sure quite what to do with them. He finally rehydrated them in brandy and mixed them into a chutney that was served with pork chops and duck. The fragrance was so intoxicating that when one plate went out into the dining room, it wasn't long before diners at other tables ordered it, too.
Unfortunately, Difu says, the restaurant's owners weren't too keen on the mushrooms, what with their peculiarity and their hefty price. As a result, he hasn't used them for a while.
But like candy you just can't get enough of, they still have a hold on Difu. And he just might have to get his fix.
``We'll probably use them again,'' he whispers. ``My sous chef and I might buy them ourselves. And we might just sneak them in.''
To order dried candy cap mushrooms from the King of Mushrooms, go to www.kingofmushrooms.com or call (650) 357-0660.