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Sonoma County Gazette
Coq au Zin

Fantastic Fungi

Sep 27, 2017
by Ron Skaar


Hieroglyphics, carved some 4,600 years ago, reveal the Egyptian pharaohs penchant for mushrooms. The pharaohs were so enamored of them, they decreed mushrooms to be fit for royal mouths only and as a sign of immortality.

Mushrooms were used for medicinal purposes in ancient China. In various other old world civilizations including Greece, China, Mexico and Latin America mushroom “rituals” were practiced. The fungi were thought to hold properties for super-human strength, lead the soul to the realm of the gods and help find lost objects!

During Roman times fungi were popular throughout Europe. Initial cultivation began in Asia around 600 A.D. and the Chinese were growing shiitake mushrooms, on oak logs, by the 13th century. Mushrooms that live off decaying plants became relatively easy to cultivate.

The French took the passion for mushrooms to a new level. One day, around 1650, a melon grower near Paris discovered mushrooms forming on his growth fertilizer. He sold them to exclusive Parisian restaurants where they were consumed with gusto.

Louis XIV could have been the first to cultivate mushrooms in France. His royal gardener discovered that the quarry caves outside Paris had just the right cool and moist environment for cultivating mushrooms. Cultivation of the common white mushroom flourished.

Across the “pond” English gardeners found mushrooms easy to grow, requiring little labor, space or investment. By the 1800’s mushrooms were being grown on a commercial scale there, throughout Europe and eventually in the United States.

In America, farmers from Pennsylvania were developing new methods for indoor mushroom cultivation. Curious home gardeners improvised new growth technics. Florists, who grew flowers on benches, found the space underneath perfect for mushroom cultivation.

Fungi, unlike vegetables, live off the substance of other living things, including plants and decaying plant remains. White and brown mushrooms evolved by taking advantage of the farm animals partly digested and nutria rich dung. Now they thrive on artificial piles of compost- manure.

There are over 38,000 varieties of mushroom, some edible others highly toxic (leave mushroom foraging to experts). Of the estimated 1,000 edible mushroom species, only a few dozen have been successfully cultivated. With the precision of controlled environments, wild mushrooms, once considered a delicacy, are now readily available.

Button mushrooms dominate the market accounting for 40% of the worlds total consumption. Dozens of different mushrooms-both cultivated and wild, fresh and dried-are available in markets today. Favorites include the woodsy flavored cepes or the smoky tasting morels; the fruity and nutty flavor of the freshly gathered chanterelle; the strong tasting, peppery shiitakes; the cremini, a button mushroom with intense flavor or its full-grown sib, the portobello.

Mushrooms actually do supply some key nutrients: The B vitamins niacin and riboflavin, iron, potassium, and selenium. They are low in calories and a good source of cholesterol-lowering dietary fiber. Mushrooms remain very active after harvest and should be loosely wrapped in moisture absorbing packaging in the refrigerator, then used quickly.

October is our national mushroom month. The 15th of the month is mushroom and red wine day, so I include a version of a classic recipe which celebrates them both.

Photo by Jon Russo

Coq au Zin


4 1/2 pounds bone-in chicken breasts, thighs & legs

3 tablespoons flour mixed with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/3 teaspoon pepper

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

4 ounces pancetta, chopped

2 cups chopped yellow onion

1 cup sliced shiitake or cremini mushrooms

4 cloves garlic, chopped

3/4 teaspoon thyme

2 bay leaves

2 cups Zinfandel

2 cups chopped tomatoes

2 tablespoons tomato paste

3/4 cup chicken stock

1/2 cup sliced green olives

1 tablespoon cornstarch mixed with 1 tablespoon water

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

Chopped parsley


Pat chicken dry with paper towels. Sprinkle flour mixture on all sides of chicken. In a large stockpot over medium heat, melt butter. Add pancetta and crisp, set aside on paper towels. Add chicken pieces skin side down and brown for 5 minutes per side. Remove with tongs and set aside. Sprinkle flour in stockpot and brown for 2 minutes. Add onions, mushrooms, garlic and herbs and sauté for 5 minutes. Add wine, tomatoes, tomato paste and stock along with chicken and bring to a boil. Place in a 350 degree oven and finish cooking for 45 minutes.

Stir in the cornstarch mixture, Dijon and green olives and continue cooking for 10 minutes. Garnish with fresh parsley

Serves 4 to 6 as an entree.


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