I grew up thinking that mushrooms came out of a small flat can or a squat glass bottle, both usually adorned with a picture of a bald-headed guy dressed in a tight white T-shirt. Or maybe that was another brand? Given that most people did not dare eat the mushrooms they saw popping up after a summer night’s hard rain, it stood to reason that the mushrooms on the rare pizza or in the green bean casserole served at Thanksgiving boasted the consistency of pink erasers, much like the ones on my No. 2 pencils that I nibbled on in the school room. And until I walked into a gourmet food shop in Aix-les-Thermes in France’s Arriège region, I’d never given a thought to mushroom powder, although by that time dried mushrooms filled many shelves in my tiny town’s Asian markets or hung in tiny (and expensive) cellophane sacks in the produce department of the local Kroger. It is obviously a small step to take from dried whole mushrooms to making a more easily transported and dissolved powder, no?
Yet, in perusing historic cookbooks, even those coming from so-called mycophobic culinary cultures in the West, it becomes clear that mushrooms played a role in the kitchens even of the British elite, thanks to the influence of French culture. Preserving an abundance of mushrooms gathered during foraging required methods that date back for centuries and which were commonly in use until commercial canning really took off in the late nineteenth century.
Drying and pickling allowed households the luxury of using mushrooms throughout the seasons of the year when fresh mushrooms were not at hand.*
The British author Flora Annie Steel, an old India hand and a force to be reckoned with, as I have said before,** wrote of tinned mushrooms in The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook (1888), implying that they lacked a great deal of flavor but in a pinch, by all means, use them:
9. Mushroom Soufflé.–One unit of butter, 1 unit flour, 5 of thin cream. Mix the flour with the butter, add the cream, and boil till thick, stir in 4 units yolk of egg well beaten, and five large mushrooms finely minced. Add 5 units well-beaten white of egg, season with salt and pepper, and bake in a soufflé case. If fresh mushrooms are not be had, mince half a tin of mushrooms, and with the other half make a purée with the cream. This is necessary, because tinned mushrooms will not soften and give out their flavour. The best substitute for fresh mushrooms is mushroom powder. Made with this, mushroom soufflé is delicious.
And what about mushroom powder? Something everyone probably knew how to make and – given the transitory nature of mushrooms in the kitchen – crucial for keeping that umami flavor in the pot during the dead of winter and through the scarcity of spring, mushroom powder shows up in historic cookbooks such as Eliza Smith’s The Compleat Housewife (1727). This version comes from the 16th edition (1758):
And long before either of these two culinary paragons picked up a pen and wrote their cookbooks, a wife living in Oxfordshire opened a small leather-bound notebook, inscribed it “Lady Elinor Fettiplace 1604,” and proceeded to record the ins and outs of her seasonal kitchen in “fine, clear, cranky Shakespearean English,” as Hilary Spurling quips in her introduction to Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book: Elizabethan Country House Cooking (1986). Passed down through the centuries until it ended up in the estate of an aunt of Mrs. Spurling’s husband, Lady Fettiplace’s manuscript included a late seventeenth-century recipe, not written in her hand, for “Pickled or Marinaded Mushrooms,” quite similar to many others of the same ilk:
To Pickle Mushrooms
Take your Buttons [one of the few instances that the mushrooms are even remotely identified], clean ym with a spunge & put ym in cold water as you clean ym, then put ym dry in a stewpan & shake a handful of salt over ym, yn stew ym in their own liquor till they are are a little tender; then strain ym from ye liquor & put ym upon a cloath to dry till they are quite cold. Make your Pickle before you do your Mushrooms, yt it may be quite cold before you put ym in. The Pickle must be made with White-Wine, White-Pepper, quarter’d Nutmeg, a Blade of Mace, & a Race of ginger.
There’s something about old (and new) cookbooks that I simply adore – they open worlds that I would certainly never experience and they broaden my horizons. In many cases, cookbooks serve as vectors for culinary change. And while old, historic cookbooks cast a rather nostalgic air over my thinking, I must stop for a moment as I turn the pages and think, as I did when I bumped against the phrase “White-Wine” mentioned by Mrs. Fettiplace, and say out loud, “Thank goodness I do not have to make my own wine or vinegar or raise my own chickens in order to make a soufflé!”
Of course, most cookbook authors in the more remote past enjoyed the comfort of armies of servants and the leisure to think, read, and write – certainly not activities available to all women then. Or even now.
*I find it remarkable that in a couple of books recently published on cooking and preserving foods in old ways that the authors omitted recipes for mushrooms entirely.
© 2013 C. Bertelsen, including all photographs.