This section is from the book "Meals Medicinal", by W. T. Fernie. Also available from Amazon: Meals Medicinal: With "Herbal Simples" Curative Foods From the Cook in Place of Drugs From the Chemist.
The numerous kinds of Mushroom (Agarics, Boleti, etc.) which spring up around us, (and of which more than a hundred edible sorts are to be found), do not possess any special medicinal virtues except as regards two, or three; nor do those which come to table boast any greater food value than other ordinary fresh vegetable products. Indeed, in some respects they are inferior, and their very nature as saprophytes, or products of rotting vegetation, and decaying organic matter, stamps them as somewhat ignoble food. The popular belief that Mushrooms are highly nutritious - one kind being described as the vegetable beef-steak (Hepatica fistulina) - is more or less a delusion. As compared with meat, their supply of proteids, or flesh-formers, is very small. We have to tell the vegetarian he must consume at least ten pounds of Mushrooms in order to gain the equivalent of a little over one pound of prime beef. These fungi, however, furnish an unusual amount of potassium salts, which fact is much to their credit. As to the dry, solid constituents of Mushrooms, they differ very materially in kind from the superior solids of meat. With the juice of the Horse Mushroom (Agaricus arvensis) Catsup is made.
This Catsup, or Ketchup (from the Japanese), is to be concocted thus: "Lightly bruise the Mushrooms, and strew over them a little salt; then boil with spices, and herbs, the juice which may be expressed after the Mushrooms thus treated with salt have stood for from twenty-four to forty-eight hours." Sydney Smith, when a hard-working curate (1798) in the midst of Salisbury Plain, said he often dined on a mess of potatoes sprinkled with a little Catsup. Once a week the butcher's cart came over from Salisbury, and it was only then he could obtain any meat.
For making Mushroom sauce: "Wash, peel, and stalk enough 'button' Mushrooms to fill a half-pint measure, and add them to two gills of the best beef gravy, which has been previously thickened with from one to one and a half teaspoonfuls of flour, and stirred over the fire till it boils. Allow the Mushrooms to simmer slowly in the sauce for ten, or twelve minutes; then stir in four teaspoonfuls of Mushroom Catsup, and half a teaspoon-ful of lemon-juice; season with salt, and pepper, if necessary, and serve very hot." The field Mushroom for cooking can be readily distinguished from any harmful fungus by the fresh pink colour of its gills underneath the top disc, by the solidity of its stem, the fragrant anise-like odour which it emits, and the separability of its outer skin. The chief chemical constituents of wholesome Mushrooms are albuminoids, carbohydrates, and fat, with mineral matters, and water. From the Golden Spindlespike (Clavaria fusiformis), when stewed, a sweet dish may be made. Our English Agaric, or field Mushroom, furnishes phosphate of potassium, a cell salt especially reparative of exhausted nerve tissue, and its energies.
Mr. A. Broadbent, of Manchester, teaches that an excellent tea for invalids may be made from the ordinary edible Mushroom (Agaricus campestris) which is highly nitrogenous, and endowed with much fat. The beef-steak fungus grows on oak trees, and resembles in its dark-brown appearance, its sapid taste, its animal odour, and its soft, pulpy touch, the commodity after which it is named. "Fried in butter," says Dr. Cooke (Royal Horticultural Society), "it is delicious." The Roman Emperor Claudius was killed by eating Mushrooms. "Hither the Emperor repaired in hope to recover his health through the temperature of the air, but, contrarily, here met with the Mushroomes that poysoned him".
If a carefully-peeled onion is boiled with Mushrooms, and comes out clean-looking, they may be eaten with confidence; if it turns blue, or black, they should be thrown away.
Strong alcoholic drinks ought never to be taken together with, or immediately after eating Mushrooms. Experienced fungus eaters (mycophagists) have found themselves suffering from severe pains, and troublesome swellings, through drinking whisky and water at a Mushroom meal; whereas a precisely similar meal, minus the whisky, could be eaten with impunity by the very same experimentalists. Edible Mushrooms, if kept uncooked, become dangerous: they cannot be sent to table too soon after being gathered. In Rome our ordinary Mushroom (there known as the Pratella) is held in very small esteem; and the worst wish an Italian can express against his foe is "that he may die of a Prateola." If this species were exposed for sale in a Roman market, it would be certainly condemned by the inspector of fungi.
The Mushroom is styled in general a fungus, from the Latin "funus ago," I cause a death. Nevertheless, Mushrooms were exalted to the second course on the Caesarean tables, with the noble title Bromotheon, "a dainty fit for the gods," (to whom they sent the Emperor Claudius, as they have many since into the other world.) So true it is, "He who eats Mushrooms several times ' nil amplius edit,' - eats no more of anything." In every case Mushrooms should be cooked very slowly. Place them in a pie-dish with plenty of salt, and butter, adding in some cases a little water; also, if liked, parsley, onion, garlic, or other condimentary herbs. The common Mushrooms (Agaricus campestris, and Agaricus arvensis) will take an hour and a half to be properly cooked after this fashion. Of all animal and vegetable matters, there are three only which possess the principle of sapidity in the highest culinary and gustatory sense, viz., meat, cheese, and mushrooms. This sapid principle is an alkaloid, or a series of alkaloids, which is practically designated as osmazome.
The usual field Mushroom (Agaricus campestris) is ordinarily eaten at two stages of its growth, - one when it has just risen from the mycelium, and is small, with its hymen still closed, and then styled a button; and the other when it is just expanded, its hymen forming a ring round the stalk, and the spore-bearing ridges making a rosy lining to the expanded umbrella. To be valuable, Mushrooms should appear plump at both these stages. If the spores have turned black, then the Mushrooms are over-ripe. Flabby, leathery, fissured, black-lined Mushrooms are to be avoided. The poisonous kinds possess permanently white gills, which do not touch the stem, whilst a thin ring, or frill, is borne by the stem at some distance from the top, and the bottom of the stem is surrounded by a loose sheath, or vulva. For poisoning by noxious Mushrooms, antidotes can be injected under the skin, whilst very small doses of strychnia are to be given in coffee.
The Puff-Ball (Lycoperdon Giganteum Bovista) grows usually on the borders of fields, in orchards, or meadows, also on dry downs, and occasionally in gardens. It is so called from the habit of puffing out, or suddenly discharging a cloud of dusty spores when shaken, or squeezed, and when the chamber in which the spores are developed has been thus burst open. This is the Fist ball, foist, fuzz ball, Earthpuff, Bovista, Blind Harry, Blindman's-buff, Devil's snuff-box, etc.; it is edible whilst young, being then smooth, globose, and yellowish white. When ripe its fine brown-black powder is a capital application for stopping bleeding from slight cuts, and wounds. This also makes a capital drying powder for dusting on weeping eruptive sores between approximate parts, as the toes, fingers, and arm-pits. When the fungus is burnt its fumes exercise a narcotic effect, and will stupefy bees, so that their honey may be removed with impunity. It has been suggested that these fumes shall take the place of chloroform for performing minor surgical operations with its aid.
When young, and purely white, the Puff-ball may be cut into slices a quarter of an inch thick, and fried in fresh butter, with pepper, salt, and pounded herbs, each slice being first dipped in egg-yolk. Pieces of its dried inner woolly substance, with a profusion of minute snuff-coloured spores, have been long an article kept by village dames for use to staunch cuts, a ready appliance being a piece of Puff-ball to be bound over the wound, and left there until healing has taken place. Sometimes when a full meal of the Puff-ball, fried in butter, or stewed in milk, has been eaten, undoubted evidence of the narcotic effects have shown themselves.
For discerning the Beef-steak fungus already mentioned, its peculiar mode of growth is a sufficient guide. It sticks out from the trunks of trees, usually near the roots, in a large horizontal, flat, oyster-like shape, one layer above another like a section of an oyster grotto. When cooked, and laid out on a dish, it very much resembles the ear of a colossal negro; if gathered near the sea, particularly on our Bast Coast, this fungus seems already sufficiently seasoned through its briny flavour. By too much stewing these edible fungi lose their appetizing moisture, and become leathery; whilst too little cooking leaves them of an india-rubber consistency, and not more attractive to the taste.
Truffles (Tuber Cibarium) are not fungi, but subterranean tubers of an edible sort found in the earth, especially beneath beech trees, and they are uprooted by dogs trained for the purpose. In Italy these tubers are fried in oil, and dusted with pepper. For epicures they are mixed with the livers of fattened geese in our Pali de foie gras. They are stimulating, and heating, insomuch that for delicate children who are wasted in flesh, and require a multum in parvo of fatty and nitrogenous food, in a compact, but light form which is fairly easy of digestion, the Pate de foi gras on bread is an admirable recipe. The English Truffle is white, and best used in salads. A taste for Truffles has to be acquired; then with those persons who gain it this taste becomes a passion, and they get to regard the tuber as a superlative morsel. Yet irreverent novices make light of the dish, and compare cooked Truffles to turnips flavoured with tar. (See also respecting Truffles, pp. 346, 347).