Romancing the Mushroom
live a thousand years
in one autumn
Den Sutejo 1633-1698 (translated by Makoto Ueda)
Autumn in Melbourne is a fine time to take a trip to the Prahran Market and visit the wild mushroom man, Damien Pike. For many years he’s been sourcing and selling mushrooms. Much of his delectable produce is devoured in Melbourne’s finest eateries.
Damien Pike’s mushrooms are displayed in perfectly neat rows, flat on their backs with their stalks sticking up. He specializes only in what he likes to eat and veers into the unusual and exotic. Apart from wild mushrooms and exotic truffles he stocks in season: flat peaches, edible flowers and white asparagus.
A few autumns ago, my first purchase from Damien’s stall was a plump, pine mushroom. It spoke to me as I went past. Pine mushrooms are also known as Saffron Milk Caps or Orange Fly Caps and are usually found under pine trees.
When I sheepishly admitted I didn’t know what the hell to do with it, Damien laughed and gave me advice on the best way to cook it. The result was so delicious I pounce on pine mushrooms whenever I see them in Autumn.
Ever since I read, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, I’ve had a thing for mushrooms. I was about six when I first came across the notorious Alice Liddell, disappearing down the rabbit hole into a fantastical world. The scene where she comes across the caterpillar sucking on a hookah – while seated on a sinister looking mushroom – really tickled me.
The caterpillar was imperious in manner and rude to Alice, “Who are YOU?” I was very taken with the notion that if you ate a chunk of the caterpillar’s mushroom, you’d be able to grow or shrink at will. I’ve since discovered that premium champagne can sometimes produce a similar effect.
A wonderful book on mushrooms was first published in 1925, The Romance of the Fungus World by mycologists R.T. Rolfe and F.W. Rolfe.
Between 1925-2014, eighteen editions were published, including a 1974 edition featuring a trippy purple cover with an illustration of the caterpillar from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. (photo above).
It perfectly suited the decadent era of LSD, hallucinogenics, Pink Floyd, David Bowie and exotic smoking drugs imbibed from hookahs and bongs.
The wonderful thing about The Romance of the Fungus World is that it seriously examines the gastronomic delights offered by mushrooms, their medicinal uses and the effects of poisonous fungi. Yet this scientific information sits comfortably with the esoteric, mystical side of fungi.
A whole chapter is dedicated to fungi lore and mythology: predominately the association between fungi and devils, witches, elves and fairies.
Toadstools in a circular formation (known as fairy rings) have numerous mythologies explaining their existence. One ancient story has it that after the wee people had danced around in a circle, toadstools grew on the grass where they’d danced, and were used by elves and fairies to rest their tired feet.
An old English West-country superstition held that if a maiden wanted to improve her complexion, all she had to do was to nip outside on a May morning and rub dew from the grass all over her face. However, it was imperative that the maiden didn’t intrude inside any fairy rings, for the wee people might get angry and take their revenge by giving her a hideous rash.
Strange things happened to folk who were foolish enough to step into the fairy rings. In Germany it was once believed that the bare portion of the ring was the place where a fiery dragon had rested in his nocturnal wanderings.
The dedication in the 1925 edition is lovely:
To the memory of George Edward Massee … to whom the Authors are indebted for their first glimpses of the Fungus World, and in whose company, in field and by fireside, they spent many delightful hours.
Photograph: Cover of The Romance of the Fungus World (1974 edition) by R.T. Rolfe & F.W. Rolfe