From ‘British Edible Fungi: How to Distinguish and Cook them.’
By M. C. Cooke, M.A., L.L.D., A.L.S. London, 1891.
St George’s mushroom:
Agaricus gambosus 1821, Tricholoma gambosum c1891, Calocybe gambosa to 2015.
THE only really good spring mushroom, except the Morels, is the St. George’s mushroom (Agaricus gambosus) presumably called because it makes its first appearance about St. George’s day.
There is a legend accounting for the name, which is current in Hungary, that it was a gift from St. George. Readers may please themselves which account they choose to adopt. Some confusion has also prevailed as to the scientific name which Dr. Badham gave as Agaricus prunulus, and some others have called it Agaricus Georgii, whereas the veritable prunulus and also the true Georgii are different species. In France it is called the mouceron or mousseron on account of its growing amongst moss, and from this it has been stated that our name “mushroom,” applied generally to another species, has been derived.
The St. George’s mushroom is a pasture-loving species, and is not found in woods. In ordinary circumstances the cap is about three inches in diameter but it will reach four or five, and Dr. Badham states that he has found it six inches across, and weighing between four and five ounces. He adds that he collected one spring at Keston, in Kent, from ten to twelve pounds in a single ring, and in one field from twenty to twenty-five pounds. From this it will be seen that it is a gregarious species, many specimens being found growing in company, in the form of rings, or part of rings, in the same manner as the fairy-ring champignon. In some parts a prejudice exists amongst the farmers against them, on the supposition that they injure the grass crops, and for that reason they are kicked over and destroyed. A better plan would be to collect them in a basket, and carry them home to cook; but prejudice is blind.
In addition to its being found in fields and pastures in the spring, when agarics are rare, and its gregarious habit, it also has a strong and peculiar odour, which is rather oppressive if a large number are taken into a room. The cap is thick in its flesh, covered with a dry cuticle, soft to the touch, like a delicate kid glove, smooth but often cracking when old. In colour it is usually of a creamy whiteness, inclined to become yellowish at the top, and not so regular in form as the ordinary mushroom, but lobed, and waved at the margin, which is turned in for a long time, and wholly of a firm substance. When cut through the flesh is often nearly an inch thick at the centre. The stem is thick (nearly an inch) and short, of the same colour as the cap, rather thicker at the base, and often contorted, or irregular. The gills are a watery white, and very numerous, commonly arched, reaching the stem, to which they are attached. The spores are also white. It would be difficult to confound this with any other species, especially when it is remembered that all fungi are rare at the time of its appearance, and if our description is read over carefully, it would be difficult to mistake it at any time, not forgetting the strong odour, its growing in rings, and its white gills and spores. We have never encountered anyone who disliked this mushroom when tasted, but we have heard it objected to as being rather heavy and indigestible for delicate stomachs. Experience, however, has never enabled us to support this charge, and we can only say with Dr. Badham, that “it is the most savoury fungus with which we are acquainted.”
Agaricus personatus 1818; Tricholoma personatum 1871; Lepista personata to 2015.
There are two or three agarics which have many points in common with the foregoing, from a gastronomic point of view, that we purpose including them here, as the same modes of cooking are applicable to all. The first of these are the Blewits [field blewit], which is a truly autumnal species, sometimes collected as late as November, and seldom appearing at all until October. It loves the grass in open places, such as parks, but not woods and forests. Sowerby has stated that in his time it was occasionally sold under the name of “Blewits” in Covent Garden Market, but we have never seen it exposed for sale in this country. It is more regular in the shape of its caps than the St. George’s mushroom, and similar in size, but not viscid, with an oily appearance. In colour it is most commonly of a dirty white, sometimes greyish, or with a tinge of violet, also thick in the flesh, and firm, but it imbibes water readily, so that it is liable to become sodden and dark in wet weather. The edge is at first turned in, and looks frosted, or minutely velvety, but this soon disappears. The stem is one to three inches long, and about three quarters of an inch thick, rather swollen at the base and stained with lilac, which colour also penetrates into the flesh of the stem. The gills are numerous, rounded behind, and scarcely attached to the stem, dirty white, now and then tinged with violet, but the spores are white. It has a strong odour, but not so powerful as the St. George’s mushroom, and is equally pleasant to the taste. This is also a gregarious species and is said to be fond of growing in rings, but we have never recognised this habit although several specimens will generally be found growing in company. Although this fungus seems to correspond, as a late species, to the St. George’s, which is an early one, and they have several points in common, but there is no suspicion of it being the same species, indeed this could hardly be possible. The similarity extends even to the flavour when cooked, although we retain a preference for the former. The Blewits should not be collected for the table when they are water-logged; since they will hardly give satisfaction in that condition, but when in a good state, they are undoubtedly an excellent esculent.
Agaricus nudus 1790; Tricholoma nudum c1891; Lepista nuda to 2015.
Another species which seems to have been confounded by earlier writers with “Blewits” under the name of “Blue Caps” is a very common autumnal species amongst dead leaves in woods. Perhaps for this the name “Bluecaps” [wood blewit] might be appropriated. It is really a very fine and handsome species, gregarious like the others, but when young of a light violet blue, becoming ruddy with age. In books it is said to be two inches in diameter, but we have seen twenty individuals growing together, not one of which was less than five or six inches. The cap is at first convex, but soon flattened, quite smooth, not viscid, and at last depressed, and almost brick red. It has been called amethyst colour, but there is much more blue in the tone than in amethyst, and it always has a remarkably clean appearance. The stem varies according to the size of the cap, for in the large specimens alluded to it was six or seven inches long, and more than an inch thick, but more commonly it is half those dimensions. In colour the stem is similar to the cap, but perhaps a little paler, with a little white wooliness at the base. The gills are numerous and either rounded behind or running down the stem, at first of the same colour as the cap, but becoming ruddy with age. The spores are always white. For the table we always collect specimens which retain their violet blue colour, and of these we have seen sufficient within an hour to fill a bushel basket. It is, in some places, where there are plenty of dead leaves on the ground, one of the commonest autumnal species. In other places it seems to be comparatively rare. Once recognized and identified it cannot be confounded with any other species, and we have breakfasted upon it daily for a week, without surfeit or inconvenience. It has but a very slight odour, and possesses a more delicate flavour than either of the foregoing.
The St. George mushroom has secured for itself in all countries where it is known golden opinions. In some instances this is probably due to the successful intervention of the cook, since fungi, more than aught else, depend much upon the efficiency of the cook. If the cooking of fungi has not yet been elevated to the position of a high art, it deserves to be, for the same fungus will please or displease with the merits of the operator. Dr Badham declared this to be the most savoury fungus with which he was acquainted, and justly considered so over almost the whole continent of Europe. Edwin Lees, who was a pronounced mycophagist, was “inclined to give it the highest place as an agaric for the table. There is nothing about its appearance to displease the most fastidious. It has an amiable and clean look, grows in pastures of fresh springing grass, and has an ambrosial smell – an aroma different from and more pleasant than the common catsuppy odour of the common mushroom. It has a delicate appearance when served up, and an agreeable taste. Whoever has partaken of it once wishes to do so again.” The Rev. M. J. Berkeley had always a good word in its favour. He says – “it is one that a person cannot very well make any mistake about. It sometimes attains a large size, is excellent in flavour , and particularly wholesome.” To this may be added the testimony of Mr. Worthington Smith, himself an incorrigible fungus-eater, who remarks that – “few species are more substantial and delightful for the table. I look upon it with unusual favour, as one of the rarest delicacies of the vegetable kingdom.” The late Dr. Bull said of it, that “when grown quickly after the rains of early spring, and before attacked by grubs, it is certainly an excellent agaric. It has a very delicate flavour, and is very light and wholesome. When gathered in dry weather it is more firm in texture, and not so good in flavour.”
After such testimonials, we need only refer to the methods which have been specially recommended of its preparation. Dr. Badham considered the best method to be “either to mince, or fricassee it with any sort of meat, or in a vol-au-vent, the flavour of which it greatly improves; or simply prepared with salt, pepper, and a small piece of bacon, lard, or butter, to prevent burning, it constitutes of itself an excellent dish”
The Woolhope Club receipt is to “place some fresh made toast nicely divided, on a dish and put the agarics upon it, with a small piece of butter on each; then pour on each a teaspoonful of milk or cream, and add a single clove to the whole dish. Place an inverted basin over the whole, bake for twenty minutes, and serve without removing the basin until it comes to the table, so as to preserve the heat and aroma, which, on lifting the cover, will be diffused through the room.”
This is also one of the species which dries readily when divided into pieces, or sliced, and in this form retains much of its excellence. A few pieces added to soups, gravies, or made dishes gives to them a delicious flavour. To prevent their becoming mouldy when kept in close tins or bottles, they must be stored in a perfectly dry place. For this, and all other dried fungi, it is recommended not to exclude them entirely from the air, as they would be in bottles or canisters, but to store them in linen or muslin bags, which allows any contained moisture to escape, without producing mouldiness, or a musty flavour.
The modes of cooking are the same in the case of the blue caps [wood blewits] the Blewitts [field blewits] and St. George’s mushrooms. They may all be grilled or fried in the same manner as the common mushroom, but we do not think them so well suited for stewing. Perhaps the most successful plan is to place a lump of butter in the frying-pan with a sufficiency of gravy or milk, and a little curry powder, fry for seven or eight minutes, then throw in the sliced agarics, fry gently for ten minutes, and serve up quickly with snippets of toast.
It is also a good method to remove the stems and divide the caps down the centre. Place the pieces in a pie dish with a little pepper and salt, and a small piece of butter on each half. Either tie a paper close over the dish, or cover it closely by other means, and bake gently for about half an hour. Serve in the same dish, which should not be uncovered until placed on the table.
A simpler method is to cut off the stems close, sprinkle pepper and salt over them, and place them in a frying pan, gills upwards, in the fat after the bacon has been fried, or in default of bacon to place a piece of butter on each cap. Then fry them until thoroughly done, when they will be soft all over, and appetizing in odour and taste They may be served with bacon, or on toast.