Mushroom Hunting in England

Mushroom Paintings

Toad's Meat. “ PREJUDICE, sir—rank, obstinate prejudice; the old English conservative hatred of anything new.”
And my friend, the Reverend Phil Morel, incumbent of Mistey Parva, stooped, culled something from beneath a tree, and placed it in the japanned candlebox he wears slung from his shoulders, and as he spoke he shut the lid with a vicious snap.
“What’s him a-doin’?” said a small boy in a smock frock.
“ Pickin' 0’ toerd stoods. He ea-erts frog’s meat, he do,” said his companion, a fine specimen of what can be done on ten shillings a week without parish help.
And then the two round-eyed young gentlemen plodded off as if carrying their heavily-booted legs.
“There,” said my friend, “that is a specimen of the prejudice—the blind determination not to learn. As the child is, so is the man; and the parents of these benighted little creatures allow tons of wholesome and delicious food to rot yearly where it is spread by the bountiful hand of Nature for their eating. I tell my parishioners, I show them, I point out the differences; but they grin at me, and people call me eccentric and bitten with a love for ungodly meats; while, because some of the fungi of our country are virulently poisonous, all are banned, and I cannot make a single disciple.”
We continued our walk along the borders of a pleasant woodland, tinged with the gorgeous colours of the autumn, when, sceptical myself, I stopped suddenly, to perpetrate what I considered would be a sublime touch of humour.
“ Here you are,” I said, stopping beneath the widespreading limbs of an oak tree, and picking up a fungus. “ Here’s enough for a meal here.”
“Thanks,” said my friend, smiling, as he carefully cut off the slug-eaten parts and placed it in the candle-box.
“Why, you don’t mean to say those brown and yellow fellows are eatable ?”I said.
“ Eatable?” said my friend, contemptuously; “why, sir, that is Boletus Edulis, a delicious mushroom. But, stop, don’t pick that one at your feet, that is too old ; decomposition has set in, and it is decidedly unwholesome—poisonous, if you will; and because at times foolish people have devoured halfrotten mushrooms—bad when picked, or kept until unsound—and suffered for their folly, there is a fearful outcry against what ought to have been a delicacy. Why, every kind of food, sir, when decomposing is unwholesome, and acts as a poison upon the system, in spite of the vitiated taste which devours game in a state that must be seen to be admired. But look here, my dear fellow,” said my friend, pausing, and quite out of breath, “ this young fungus here is not merely wholesome, but delicious. Look here.”
I looked and spoke, as, quite regardless of the injury to his clerical black trousers, my friend actually climbed a few feet up an oak tree, and began carving from the bark what appeared to be a brownyred excrescence.
“ Why, what now?” I said.
“What now?” he said, “why, rumpsteak swimming in gravy, sir. Nature’s riches assuming the form of Fistulina Hepatica, whose juice were fit for an Apicius; but just brush the green off my elbow. A—a—thank you.”
We turned into the wood through one of the nutedged paths, and before we had gone many yards he stooped and began thrusting aside the hazel twigs, to obtain a cluster of rich, golden-ribbed, cupshaped fungi.
“ Look here! riches again: the delicious Chantarelle, used iat State feasts, and loved of F reemasons. Here again—what do you think of this?”
“ Looks like a vegetable cracknell,” I said.
“ Precisely, my dear fellow. This is the Hydnum Repandum. Just like oysters, sir.”
The candle-box began to fill—filled—and overflowed into my friend’s pockets; and then I saw that he had a division in the tin receptacle for new species, of which he found several—at least new to him; while over one cinnamon-looking mushroom I stuck fast, and refrained from asking more scientific names, since, though no edible, the Cortinarius Glutinosus took some digesting.
Crossing the little wood, after rejecting scores of inedible kinds, we once more stood in a field.
“Here we are,” said my friend. “The Champignon, always delicious; and, really what luck you have—what do you think of that, now? Ah ! don’t kick it.”
I picked from amongst the long grass a large round fungus, that seemed made on purpose to play football; examined its skin—like the finest ofwhite kid—and passed it to my friend, who, puzzled what to do with it, ended by placing it in his hat, and covering it with a handkerchief.
“ Baby’s head !” he replied, scornfully, to a remark of mine concerning its resemblance to part of an infant. “ Do you like sweet-bread, sir, or brain fritters? Why, this is the giant puff-ball, Lycoperdon Giganteum—a delicacy, if cut in slices, egged and crumbed, and fried in butter. But there, you shall dine with me to-day, and I will send you away rejoicing.”
“ To the doctor’s,” I said, with a touch of the fine satire at which I have before hinted; but the look of contempt I met crushed me, and I could read upon the Rev. Phil M orel’s curled lip the word “prejudice.”
“ Now let us ascend the hill,” he said, “and go where the winds sigh through the long rows of pines. I will show you some treasures there.”
I followed him, and we soon stood where the tall, straight trunks formed innumerable vistas, while our feet glided upon the smooth needles.
“Look, look!” cried my friend, starting hastily forward, and tripping overa pine stump, to fall headlong and scatter his fungoid treasures from his tin horn of plenty.
“Was that the acrobatic feat you wished me to remark?" I said drily, as I helped to pick up the scattered fungi.
“ Pooh, nonsense !” said my friend, picking a very objectionable-looking, leprous toadstool, of a. dingy grey colour, and covered with rough, warty scales, as if the fungus were moulting. “Pooh, nonsense, sir! this is a. very choice—a very rare specimen here—the Hydnum Imbricatum. We really are in luck to-day.”
“But you surely will not eat that toad-skinned affair,” I said.
“ My dear fellow,” was the reply, “appearances are always deceptive. This toad-backed affair, as you term it, is good, and this, and this, and this is delicious: all fine specimens of the treasures I named—a fungus so palatable that it is called Lactarius Deliciosus, the orange-milk mushroom.”
“Very good," I said; “ then here’s another.”
And I picked and presented the fungus by my feet.
“Not at all,” he said. “There you are wrong: that is one of the noxious agarics; and see, the milk it exudes is white when broken. Just taste it.”
“ What, I? Not I."
“ But just in the cause of science. See—I do.”
After so good an example I could not, of course, refuse; but I behaved very indelicately the next moment, spitting and sputtering about to free my tongue from an acrid burning sensation, like the compound decoction of stinging nettles or molten lead.
“ Virulent, isn’t it ?" said my friend.
“Rather,” I said, applying my handkerchief to the insulted member.
“ But here is another of the good ones; and here is one strong distinction—the milk here is of a bright red colour, like molten sealing-wax, while it ultimately turns green or blue.”
“ But you have not one true mushroom,” I said.v
“True mushroom i” said my friend; “why, sir, these are true mushrooms. But I presume that you mean the common field mushroom—the Agaricus Campestris. If so, I have not, for they are snatched up directly they appear. If I see one, of course I pick it up; but I scarcely trouble myself about them when I find in plenty some thirty excellent edible kinds. Of course you are aware that upon the Continent people do not neglect the bounty of Nature as we do here, for fungi are largely sold in the markets.”
I dined that day with the Reverend Phil Morel, feeling somewhat like a member of the Acclimatization Society; but truly good was the food which he set before me. Slices of puff-ball fried are most delicate; Champignons are excellent; Boletus Edulis is as good as the common mushroom; Fistulina Hepatica is something to smack your lips over if you are not a Sidney Smithite, and love gravy; while Lactarius the delicious, the Hydnum, and Chantarelles are even fragrant in their rich, meaty flavour. But at first I was disposed to say, with the immortal Sam Weller, “ It’s the seasonin’ as does it ;” while, after all said and done, the cook has much to do with it. But then, with what is it not so, and how seldom do we even get a potato as it should be?
And now I consider myself a convert to the belief of my friend the Rev. Phil Morel, who pats me affectionately upon the back, calling me a man and a brother, when he finds me collecting; while there are others who turn tongue-thrusters, and talk of another lunatic in the place. But I must do my friend the credit of saying that, although I poach in his most cherished preserves, he never evinces the slightest jealousy; for there exists a kind of masonry amongst the persecuted fungus-eaters. We send presents to one another. The other day I received a dozen delicious specimens of Helvella Crispa— a compliment I was able to repay with a “ baby’s head,” off which I ate a slice upon dining with my friend. But, in spite of all that is said, the labouring people in the neighbourhood will not be convinced, but keep to the one kind, declaring all else to be poison.
Fungus-hunting may certainly appear to be a very tame thing to some; but to a working man who, after his six days’ toil, acts sensibly, and, after the worship due, seeks the far-off woodlands and fields, to feast his eyes upon the beauties of Nature, inflate his lungs with the pure breath of heaven, and stretch his cramped, work-contracted muscles, there may be some satisfaction in filling his pockets or handkerchief or basket with what I know, from my own experience, to be delicacies. There are those, doubtless, who will tell me I am advocating misuse of the Sabbath-day, but I must confess to having often returned myself from a Sunday afternoon walk with pockets filled with edible and botanic specimens of the works of the Great Creator; while many of those whom I address in these columns would consider it a lapse of duty to wife and family if they stole a working day. But anywhere round London, at the distance of a few miles beyond where the monster metropolis has not stretched forth its tendril-like brick and mortar arms, a basket may be filled at any time during these autumn days. Ask any one whose restless spirit has led him from his bed before dawn, to tramp through dewy fields mushrooming, what success he has had, and how looks the basket. Why, it is a battle—a competition who shall get up earliest, get his feet the wettest, and bring home the finest of the delicacies after tramping the greatest number of miles.
I ask you not to go at cold, wet hours, shivering from your bed, but when the sun shines warm and golden; and not so much into the fields as into the shady woods, where the breezes whisper, the golden network lies, the pine sheds its odorous scent, the late-day violets and primroses blow—yes, even now, while I write, in the early part of October, even as I go again and again, surrounded perhaps by merry voices, whose happy owners dash from dell to dell, hunting for the treasures amidst hazel stub and mossy sweep, under fir and oak, everywhere abundant, and yet lying rotting without a hand to gather. Breakfast, dinner, tea—at any meal good; dried on strings for winter use, or bottled in powder to give a charm to the homely hash—a dish that, perhaps, some of my readers may have before now heard of — turned into ketchup, or eaten in the shape of pickles ; truly, it seems a sin that these luxuries, nearly all equal to, and some surpassing, the ordinary mushroom, should be so neglected from ignorance and prejudice; for which, though, I must own there is some excuse, since many kinds are really deadly in their properties. So much praise may seem out-of place when but a few weeks since a whole family was poisoned, one daughter even to death, by poisonous fungi; but, after all, does not this show how necessary is a little knowledge upon such a subject? And though a little knowledge is said to be a dangerous thing, yet in this case I maintain it is not; and that a very little attention to the subject would teach anyone to discriminate between what is noxious and what is good for food.
I may be told that the works upon the subject are costly, and too scientific for the use of ordinary people, and with regard to some this holds good; but a very excellent treatise may be obtained upon edible mushrooms, well illustrated, for some five or six shillings, which a working man would find well invested in Mr. G. Worthington Smith’s “ Mushrooms and Toadstools,” with its two sheets of coloured lithographs, worthy of framing; while two excursions—aye, even one—should give the reader in return mushrooms enough to make nearly the cost of the book in ketchup; while for those who say they cannot spare so much, there is the food department of the South Kensington Museum, with the large engravings upon the walls illustrating which of the fungus tribe are edible, and which noxious.
And now a few words upon the other side of the question. Care must be exercised, for the virulent kinds have a strong resemblance to the useful—a resemblance, however, that grows less and less to the person who carefully compares and examines, till a. moment’s glance is sufficient to discriminate. But in every case where there is any doubt, it is better to reject; for edible fungi are not scarce articles. Again and again, while walking in the fields I come across the soiled and broken remains of the giant puff-ball, which forms a favourite missile for pelting boys. Young geese ! little do they know how good and wholesome a delicacy they have destroyed. As for the ordinary Champignon, certainly it has not quite so bad a name, but the eaters are few and far between; though, once partaken of, they would never again be rejected, for I do not hesitate to declare them delicious. But care must be used; and a little knowledge, attained through very little study, and the exercise of moderation are enough to make a fungus-eater, which means a fungus-lover. Many of the cases of poisoning by mushrooms have been due to the fact that they were old and semi-putrescent, or badly cooked—circumstances sufficient to have produced a sharp attack of illness from the eating of meat—especially pork or fish—in the same state. The necessity for using them fresh is absolute; for specimens that I have gathered overnight, apparently sound, have been swarming with maggots in the morning. I consider them more delicate than fish in this respect and therefore their rapid should not be brought forward as to their being not wholesome.
Once a Week
 edited by Eneas Sweetland Dallas