Raymond Blanc is gaining mastery over mushrooms, inside and out. Having conquered them within the bounds of his kitchen, the French chef is attempting to grow them on his property. In 2005, under the guidance of Welsh mushroom expert Richard Edwards, Blanc laced 60 logs with spores of shiitakes, cauliflower fungi, brown-gilled woodlovers, and other species and laid them in a small valley on the grounds of Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, the 15th-century manor hotel that he operates in Great Milton, Oxford, England.
At the hotel’s eponymous restaurant, Blanc had hoped to serve his bounty in such dishes as wild mushroom fricassees and slightly soured shiitakes with eel and bonito gelée. But after two years of waiting for the fungi to flourish, he realized that he did not control the mushrooms’ fate; the unpredictable British weather did. Lack of rain, warm temperatures, and low humidity had conspired to curtail the valley’s yield. By last fall, he had harvested only three shiitakes—barely enough to fill an omelet.
Edwards, cofounder of Humungus Fungus, a consulting firm for growers of organic mushrooms, offered a sound but potentially unsightly solution to Blanc’s mushroom dilemma. Because he knew he could make mushrooms flourish indoors, Edwards recommended installing a shipping container at one end of the valley. He divided the container into two rooms: one for propagation (the phase in which the mushroom spores are encouraged to take root), the other for growing. Blanc covered it in planks of beech, ash, and oak woods to prevent it from spoiling his guests’ view of the valley. The container might yield as much as 100 pounds of mushrooms a week, which will be more than enough to supply Le Manoir.
“This is probably the smallest mushroom-growing room in the world,” says Edwards of the 8-foot-tall, 8-foot-wide, 20-foot-long insulated steel box. The propagation room is carpeted with 300 bricks of oak sawdust in which the spores will grow. Once the spores take hold, the bricks will be transferred to the growing area for three to 12 weeks, depending on the fungi species, so the mushrooms can mature. If all goes well, Blanc’s fall menu will include terrines, puff pastry mille-feuilles, and risottos that feature nutty-flavored cauliflower fungi; parasol mushrooms, whose umbrella-shaped caps can span 15 inches; and tinker’s truffles, which can taste like butter-sautéed crab. Blanc is especially eager to cook with king oysters, a meaty yet subtle-tasting mushroom that he plans to poach in lemon verbena or bergamot-scented olive oil and cook a la plancha—caramelized on one side, raw on the other.
Fall also brings Le Manoir’s annual mushroom hunt, which is scheduled for the morning of October 20. A party of as many as 50 will join Blanc and Edwards as they gather the chanterelles, parasols, pied de moutons, and cloud ears that grow in the wild on the 25-acre grounds. This year’s hunt will include a visit to Le Manoir’s mushroom-growing room to harvest a few fungi for the four-course lunch that will celebrate the finds of the day.