Confessions of a Toadstool Eater

Among things not generally known to the British public is the fact that there are several funguses, besides the common mushroom, which are good to eat. With this fact, however, some other publics are familiar enough, as the Russian, for instance, and the public of Rome and other parts of Italy. In the Papal states, indeed, British ideas on the subject of funguses are reversed.

Here the received belief is that the common mushroom is the only one of the family which is not poisonous. There, whilst numerous varieties of what we call toadstools are consumed by the population, the common mushroom is accounted so unwholesome that the inspector of the fungus-market at Rome causes it to be thrown into the Tiber.

The type of fungous orthodoxy in England is placed at the Holy See in the Index Expurgatorius of the victualling department. Agaricus campetris anathema esto! The reason of this is said to be that the qualities of the common mushroom, as contradistinguished from the rest of its tribe, vary with the soil whence it springs. Mushrooms differ in different places; toadstools are everywhere the same.

Even in this country some people are occasionally disordered by eating the genuine mushroom. Cobbett was once; and, of course, ever afterwards abused mushrooms as unfit to be eaten by anybody. Mushrooms, however, like many good creatures, are liable to unjust censure. Anybody might well expect to be half-poisoned in consequence of eating them stale, in a state of decomposition, and swarming with insects.

The fact that sundry native funguses, which lament in the familiar name of toadstools, are eatable, is one which I have personally verified. In making my own organisation the test of their properties, I have laid myself open to be told that I have shown a proper self-appreciation, inasmuch as the experiment has been tried on a body which, according to a celebrated axiom, is the kind of one most eligible for that purpose.

My corpus vile, however, has not become vilius for the tentative use to which it has been thus applied. I have found all the alleged esculent fungi that I have eaten, and I have eaten considerable quantities of as many as I have been able to find, really esculent, and some of them excellent. None of them has ever disagreed with me in the least, except one called the Agaricus persanatus, a fungus with a brownish purple cap and violet gills, which comes up about the end of October and the beginning of November.

On two occasions, after breakfasting on this toadstool, I was afflicted with a stomachache, but I have eaten it many times without any such result. The truth is, that on both occasions, when it disagreed with me, I had had it cooked in a peculiar way, and it was not thoroughly done. The effects which it produced might have been equally caused by a piece of under-done pork or a half-boiled potato.

What could induce me to take to fungus-eating? Curiosity, and a certain fascination, exerted by the sort of magical physiognomy characteristic of these strange productions. This singularity of their aspect is generally felt. Their grotesque and fanciful forms and colours, and the marvellous rapidity with which they spring, have reflected a supernatural glimmer, so to speak, on their origin, and caused them to be imagined
as the work of those airy spirits

whose sport
is to make midnight mushrooms;

and the circles of seared turf, or dark-green grass, which are the favourite haunts of many of their various kinds, are actually, in common language, called fairy rings.

Everywhere they have been associated in popular mythology with elves and hobgoblins. The Dutch call them “Duyvel’s broot.” I wanted to know whether the devil’s victuals were as good as I had heard they were; and the weird, uncanny exterior of those vegetable
marvels suggested that they might be found to be endowed with a choice mysticism of flavour.

Such had always struck me as characterising the taste of the common mushroom, to which I expected to find theirs analogous. I had heard of a treatise, written by the late Dr. Badham, on the “Esculent Funguses of England,” and had often entertained the thought of getting it. This occurred to me one day in passing Highley’s shop in Fleet Street; but not knowing the price of the work, and unwilling to invest any large amount of capital in pleasing a whim, I walked on. In returning along the other side of the street, a few minutes afterwards, I saw the very volume at a bookstall. The price was half-a- guinea — a hobby might be worth that. I accordingly disbursed so much — or so little —and Badham, in the pursuit of gastronomical mycology, became my guide, philosopher, and friend. I can confidently recommend him to others who may be inclined to pursue the same path of investigation, which will conduct them through pleasant places, if they delight in woods and lanes.

If a second edition of this book has been published, some gross but obvious errors of typography and arrangement will, no doubt, have been corrected. It is pleasant reading — the sprightly work of a botanist and a scholar.

As yet I have been unable to test the merits of all the fungi enumerated by Badham as esculent. Of those which I have tasted, some, certainly, do deserve his commendations; but, I think, not all. In the first place, I have not found one of them preferable in flavour to the common mushroom, except the Agaricus prunulus, and perhaps the Agaricus nebularis.

The first of these resembles, but surpasses, the ordinary mushroom, and has also a peculiar, and very delicate smack of its own, which is a little like its smell, and that may be compared to the perfume of clematis, or of bitter almonds, though I confess I have heard it likened to the scent of yellow soap.

It is generally a white, cream-coloured, or whity-brown fungus, sometimes, on being plucked, turning in some places faintly yellow, with a cap often lobed, very fleshy, thick, and when young, firm. The gills are at first colourless, as the cap expands they become slightly flesh-coloured, then assume a neutral tint, and lastly turn black. The stalk is very thick in proportion to the cap, and generally bulges much at the base. Badham says that this fungus appears only in the spring. He concluded this from observations which were perhaps too local. I have never found the prunulus before nearly the middle of June, and have met with some specimens as late as November.

Like other fungi, it requires for the antecedents of its appearance, some amount of rain, particularly thundershowers, followed by moist temperate weather. It is very good broiled; but the best way of cooking it is to bake it, with a little butter, pepper, and salt, in an oven, on a plate, under a basin. A great quantity of gravy comes out of it, mingled, in the case of a good specimen, with osmazome, which tastes very much like the similar brown exudation on the skin of a roast leg of mutton.

An epicure with no particular weakness for funguses would accept the prunulus as a remarkably flavorous common mushroom; from which, however, it differs not only in conformation, and the other sensible properties, above-mentioned, but also in the capability of being dried, and of keeping in that state; whereas the common mushroom is deliquescent, and rots in two or three days. Cut into pieces, and allowed to dry, the prunulus may be kept for a year and more, for the purpose of being put into hashes and stews, which it choicely flavours.

The prunulus grows in parks and woods, sometimes near the foot of a tree, sometimes in the open, often in rings, generally in company, now and then solitary. In common with many other funguses, it comes up year after year in the same places. Those who have learned to love it, and to look for it, will often be exasperated by finding the finest specimens knocked to pieces by the boys who have picked it for a mushroom, and destroyed it on supposing themselves to have discovered it to be a toadstool.

The Agaricus nebularis is a fungus which appears about the middle of October, generally in fairy rings, sometimes alone. It is at first nearly white, both cap and gills, but soon, especially in dry weather, the cap becomes brown, and the gills turn rather brownish. The latter are slightly decurrent; that is, instead of extending horizontally under the cap from circumference to centre, they run a little way down the stem in concave lines, delineating a form like that of a bell-mouthed wine-glass, only broader and shallower in proportion.

This is a very excellent fungus: it has, in addition to the mushroom flavour, a certain piquancy, and it also contains much osmazome, so that its flesh, of all the funguses that I know, possesses most their common characteristic of resembling meat. Broiling is the best way of cooking this toadstool; the process which developes its savour in the highest degree. When fresh gathered, on being cut or broken, it exhales an odour which has been compared to that of curd cheese. Hence it is termed, in some places, the “New Cheese ” mushroom.

I suppose the Agaricus nebularis is identical with what the people in the North of England, meaning the same thing with botanists, call the Fog Mushroom. It does certainly come up in foggy weather, if that is what is intended by the word nebularis. Badham gives this toadstool the character of being pre-eminently light of digestion. I can indorse this testimony.

Here may be mentioned the fact that several other kinds of toadstools have been found by me not only not to produce any dyspeptic symptoms, but actually to create, after having been eaten, a positive sense of comfort and wellbeing in the interior, like that which fortunate persons experience now and then when they have partaken of the results of very excellent cookery. Some French dishes are examples under the latter head; and British prejudice may suggest that the probable nature of their ingredients renders it no wonder that any sensations consequent on indulgence in them, should exactly resemble those to which I have compared their effects on the digestive system.

A very delicate and dainty toadstool is the Boletus edulis; a toadstool which would generally be called a regular one — emphatically a toadstool — a fungus not like a mushroom at all as to appearance, except in having a cap and a stalk. Instead of gills under the cap, it is furnished with tubes arranged perpendicularly, not horizontally, and standing close together, so as to present a surface consisting of their united orifices, which are at first closed, and, when the cap has just expanded, give its under part the appearance of being filled with drab-coloured cement, clay, or wax.

Afterwards they open, and then the cap, beneath, looks like a mass of sponge, in colour and porosity very similar to the section of a piece of gingerbread. The outside of the cap varies from light, dark brown, or bronze, to bay or nearly black, or to a mixture of these tints. The stalk, when very young, is white, soon turning to reddish brown, and is remarkable for being marked about the upper part with a minute net, or lattice-work, of darker lines. Under trees, in oak and other woods, is the habitation of this fungus, where it may be found in summer and autumn. I have gathered it as early as the middle of June.

The Boletus edulis grows, in size, from the dimensions of a small tea-saucer to those of a large cheese plate. It is a soft fat fungus, with beautifully white flesh, and, when baked or broiled, eats much like an omelette, with a slight taste of mushroom. It relishes all the better if dressed with fine herbs. Whether it would equally succeed as a substitute for a sweet omelette I cannot say, not having as yet tried it with currant-jelly or raspberry-jam.

About the latter end of September and the first half of October appears the Agaricus procerus, a fungus of no mean quality. It is, as its name implies, tall, often standing upwards of a foot in height, though dwarf specimens are also to be met with The cap, from four to seven inches across, is shaggy on the outside, brownish white, or otherwise partridge coloured, sprinkled with scales of blackish scurf. In the centre there is a black rounded knob, very much like the black nose of a little dog. The stem (which is unfit to eat) is of a woody texture, figured with blackish markings, arranged similarly to those of a snake.

The whole fungus bears a striking resemblance to a parasol or umbrella — a similitude increased by a broad membranous ring surrounding its upper part. The gills are nearly white, with a slight tinge of flesh colour. The flesh is quite white, of a light and springy texture. Simply cooked in an oven, this fungus has a sweetish somewhat mealy taste, with scarcely any mushroom flavour. It ought to be seasoned with a little garlic; and, with this addition, makes a good stew, which a blind man might take for tripe of unusual delicacy, uncommonly well cleansed.

After cooking, the gills remain white; yet, if sprinkled with salt, in a few days they turn black, and the Agaricus procerus thus treated affords, though in comparatively small quantity, an excellent ketchup, which differs only from that of the common mushroom in being finer. The Agaricus procerus is fond of parks and commons, particularly flourishing in close proximity to furze-bushes and dead fern.

After rain, during autumn, the Agaricus fusipes comes up at some little distance from the roots of oaks. It is of middling size. The cap of this fungus is brown, often partially marked with blotches, which look like lamp-black or the film of soot that forms on the bars of a grate. The stalk is small, rather contorted; the gills are at first brownish white, and then of a rich dark bistre almost black. The taste of this fungus is much like that of the common mushroom.

The same may be said of the flavour of the Agaricus atramentarius and Agaricus comatus, two allied funguses found in fields, gardens, and waste places, in summer and autumn. The atramentarius (so called because it will serve to make ink) often grows in clumps or clusters on the stumps of trees. It is a greyish conical fungus with slate-coloured gills, and a smooth, straight, whitish stem, about four inches high. Its closed cap is about as big as an egg.

The comatus is all white, and of an oval form before it expands, softer than the atramentarius, and covered with a delicate moist scurf. When this fungus expands its margin becomes ragged, and divided, as it were, into locks, whence its name. The gills then turn black. These toadstools deliquesce rapidly, and, though good enough to eat, are best for ketchup. None but young specimens are fit for either purpose.

After rain, from July till late in the autumn, the Agaricus heterophyllus appears in woods and under trees. It is from three to five inches in diameter across the cap. This is a livid-looking toadstool, generally of the colour of an Orleans plum; yellow in some instances, in others lilac, sky-blue, or green. Its gills are white. Its stalk, externally, has the colour and appearance of spermaceti, and inside is of a sort of pithy texture.

Badham praises this fungus too highly, unless some peculiar method of cookery which I am not aware of can render it worth cooking. It yields, however, a rich and savoury gravy, and a ketchup which, on cooling after having been boiled, deposits a quantity of jelly.

Champignon is a name commonly given to the small button mushroom. It is, however, a denomination properly belonging to the Agaricus oreades; a little buff fungus which, during all the summer and most of the autumn, after wet weather succeeded by sun, abounds in fields and meadows, and on strips of grass by the road-side. Fairy rings are often thickly studded with it, which circumstance may have procured for it its classical name. The cap is conical, rather leathery; the gills are of a lighter tint than the cap; the stem is very tough and fibrous.

This is an agreeable fungus, tasting a little like a mushroom, and having, like the prunulus, the advantage of keeping when dried, and in that state serving to flavour hashes and stews. It is impossible for any one who is well acquainted with this fungus to mistake it, but very possible for anybody else to mistake it for two rather similar toadstools which are deleterious.

Of the Agaricus personalis I can say nothing worse than that, if underdone, it will, as aforesaid, give its consumer a stomach-ache. It is hardly worth further description than what I have already given. This toadstool tastes a little like veal, and might make a tolerable accompaniment to a bit of bacon. That is the best I can say of it.

The Cantharellus cibarius is a small orange yellow fungus with decurrent gills; it grows in the same season with the procerus, in the short grass and among the moss on commons and about woods. It has a faint smell of apricots. It makes a good fry, much like whitebait, and also does well in a stew.

Most wanderers amid forests have remarked an excrescence which looks like a mass of liver springing out of living oak trees. This is the Fistulina hepatica. When first formed, it resembles a tongue protruding from the tree; except that its colour at first is of a light yellowish red. In this state its upper surface is studded with small papillae, which heighten its tongue-like appearance. When torn, it turns red inside; its flesh assuming the look of beetroot, and emitting a smell like that of wine. Its taste is slightly acid. When old, it becomes dark brown, or nearly black. It appears throughout the summer. Cut into slices and fried, it tastes like very mild liver, with somewhat of the mushroom flavour, and a tartness like that imparted by a squeeze of lemon. Used for the same purposes as the truflle, it would probably be found preferable to that fungus.

Two of the puff-balls are very good to eat. Every schoolboy is familiar with these fungi, which he knows by the name of “snuff-boxes,” but which the refinement of classical botany calls by the more dainty denomination Lycoperdon; the Lycoperdon plumbeum and the Lycoperdon bovista. The principal differences between them are that the latter is much the larger, is pear shaped, fixed to the ground by a short stem, and covered on the outside with soft tender patches of membrane. The Lycoperdon plumbeum is generally smoother, though sometimes covered with minute, light brown, bran-like scales. Its most usual colour is white; the hue also of the bovista. Both are full inside of a firm white pulp; which, if they are left to dry, turns into a light, impalpable powder: the “snuff” of the schoolboys. The fumes of this, when burnt, are said to exert on animals anaesthetic effects equal to those of chloroform. These puff-balls are alike in taste. They are best cut in slices, as the French cut potatoes, and fried with the yolk of egg. Their flavour then very nearly resembles that of sweetbread.

I have tasted one more of the British esculent fungi; the Polyporus frondosus, a greyish-brown, branching mass of fungus, growing at the base of the oak and other trees. When broiled, it has much of the flavour of the genuine mushroom, the Agaricus campestris, or, to venture on a liberty of botanical nomenclature, the Agaricus bona fide. The first specimen I met with occurred in a hedge at the root of a hazel-nut tree, in a lane in Hampshire. Some little clowns with eyes and mouths wide open, watched my companion and myself whilst we were removing it, and, as we walked off with it, one of them hallooed after us:

“That there be twooad’s myeeat!”

On another occasion, as we were gathering some specimens of the Agaricus heterophyllus in a copse, we received a like caution from a passing countryman of the same county:

“They be rank pison!” he informed as in a loud voice, from a distance.

The connection between these productions and the reptiles with which they are nominally associated is quite imaginary. I have never yet seen a toad either seated on a toadstool, or crouching under one. No doubt toadstools have derived that name from peculiarities of conformation and colour, which give them an aspect of toadiness.

Fat, bloated, mottled, many of them may seem the vegetable analogues of the toad. That reptile being accounted “ugly and venomous,” their similarity to it in look has procured for them a corresponding character. But whereas the “precious jewel ” which the toad has been credited with wearing in his head, is nothing more than a brilliant eye — “all my eye,” as the toad might be excused for saying — sundry toadstools possess the really valuable property of serving for nutriment, as witness the undersigned. Instead of being only fit to be ingredients in a hell-broth, they are exceedingly good things to enter into the composition of a hash.

Are there any general rules by which wholesome toadstools can be distinguished from such as are poisonous? One only that can in any measure be relied on — a pleasant taste is a pretty safe criterion of their wholesomeness. The converse of this, however, does not hold quite good: some eatable sorts are rather hot to the palate when uncooked.

The proof of the toadstool is in the eating — cautiously tried; small quantities only being at first ventured on, and heat in the throat, or any other unpleasant sensation in that, or the continuous thoroughfare, being taken as a warning. Add to this, that the experiment should not be hazarded at all till the fungus in question has been carefully identified by reference to minute descriptions and accurate plates. By these precautions the explorer will be enabled to walk safely on the enchanted ground which engenders toadstools, and to banquet on its produce with impunity and satisfaction.

P. L.

 

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