Mushrooms in The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi

There are times when my job in IT gets …busy.. and I contemplate other things I could be doing. It has become an especially strong feature of pandemic life now that I spend so much of my time in the one place in front of the same screens I worry I am taking root. The whole thing has very sharply concentrated my mind on my preference to be outdoors, under trees, near a river, and I am making some moves to enable me to hopefully spend more of my own time doing more outdoor things, but these things are always slow in their realisation.

One of my sanity chasing exploits during pandemic has been to spend even more time on learning about edible foragables; I adore chopping herbs, I love the adventure in aroma with each new green sprig I add to my pile of scrunchable, choppable things, and almost by accident a huge interest in fungi has grown from that. I have been entertaining myself with daydreams of knowing enough as a forager to be sent out to gather just the perfect mushroom, root, fruit of leaf required for a recipe. Could foragers have gained a certain celebrity in famous medieval cooking circles or was it much more commonplace and ordinary? Evidence of foraging or foragers is extremely hard to determine in an Irish context, for example evidence so far seems to suggest that Ireland was always a bit on the fungi-cautious side of things, so any plan I might have had to recreate some medieval Irish mushroom expertise is grinding along very, very slowly. But there is a direction, so hopefully there will be a future post out of it.

In search of some faster research achievements in the meantime I turned to Bartolomeo Scappi’s Opera, which I absolutely adore and have mentioned in previous posts. Italians are far more inclined to sample widely from the world of mushrooms, and I am absolutely enthralled with modern day discussions about foraging and foragers (fungaioli or mushroom hunters) there – they certainly make Italy climb even higher on my bucket list of places to visit. So I decided to see what Scappi had to say because I know at least one redaction I have seen widely in SCA use tends to just substitute ordinary white button mushrooms, which is fine, but I’d like to know more. Given I once had enormous fun trying to find different varieties of pears for one of his recipes I thought this would be an interesting point of study. (Bonus trivia: I mentioned pears and today in the course of my research I discovered that pears were once considered a natural antidote to fungus toxins Pyra sunt theriaca fungorum – Prosper Calanius, Traicté pour l’entrenement de santé, 1533.)

So, let’s explore a couple of the mushrooms or fungi recipes in The Opera, translated by Terence Scully.

Recipe 1 – Book II. 215

To prepare a thick soup of common field mushrooms * and other sorts of mushroom
Get field mushrooms (which are the most delicate of all mushrooms) in their season, in Rome between the end of February and the middle of May. Clean off the skin that is around them, and especially any sand on their stalk, and wash them in several changes of water. Put them into a casserole pot where there is melted pork fat, pepper and cinnamon, and sauté them slightly with nothing else because as they cook they make their own broth. When they have boiled a little, put in some yellow saveloy or slices of marbled prosciutto to cook with them, adding a little good meat broth. Before serving them, put in a handful of beaten herbs, a little grated bread, verjuice, pepper, cinnamon and saffron, and bring it all to a boil. Serve them hot with the saveloy on top.

Okay, so first things first. As an Irish person field mushrooms are definitely not what I would call delicate and they are an autumn thing, not Feb to mid May. Actually now I think about it they “go over” very quickly, and their gills break easily, so maybe I am being unhelpful in my definition. I think of them as frequently large hearty things, and their tendency to stain and cook very dark doesn’t immediately make me think ‘delicate’. What does Scappi mean by a field mushroom? Checking along Scully’s footnote back to II.115 I read “the common field mushroom or agaric (in Scappi, prugnolo) is either agaricus pruneolus or Tricholoma Georgii” Hmmmmmmm. Agaric does not equal agaricus, first off. An agaric is a label on a few different mushrooms, the most commonly thought of is typified by the highly visible red with white spots “fly agaric”, which is toxic though not often deadly, so let’s just be very clear that this is not what he means straight away. Agaricus is a genus of over 300 mushrooms, both edible and poisonous, which does include the agaricus campestris, which is what I know as the common field mushroom. I don’t know what an agaricus pruneolus is, and if I google it I get a lot of Italian sources which seem to be historical and medicinal. My argument against him meaning one of the edible agaricus is really that even in Italy I honestly think the season is too late and I do think, based on the season, the second option Tricholoma Georgii -which is the old latin name for Calocybe gambosum or St. George’s mushroom – is more likely intended.

Calocybe gambosa works well for our purposes, it grows mainly in untreated fields, grass verges and roadsides. The English name comes from when it first starts to appear in the UK, around St. George’s Day or 23 April but it starts to appear in Italy in March where it is called marzolino, a very popular and frequently foraged mushroom. They are creamy white to yellow coloured and have white gills, they are said to have a mealy and/or cucumber-y smell, and their flesh is soft and thick which will stay mostly the same pale colour when cut. They are also imported into Italy where they remain extremely popular. I am discounting the Hygrophorus marzuolus beloved by many Italians as Marzuoli because it is more a forest than a field mushroom.

As with a lot of researched things the minute I come to a conclusion I am happy with I find something in a popular source which could have saved me a whole lot of looking up. In this case I find an interesting article in Italy Magazine, about a fungaiolo called Giuseppe ‘Beppe’ Vanoli. In the article is the word Prugnolo – exactly Scappi’s word – “Another of Beppe’s recommended specimens is the Prugnolo or Fungo di San Giorgio (Tricholoma georgii). ‘It grows in Spring around the feast of St George – April 23rd,’ says Beppe, ‘and is an excellent edible mushroom. It has a strong taste and aroma that hints of freshly-baked bread.’ Prugnoli often form fairy rings or lightning-like zigzags which have fired the imagination and enriched the folklore of rural villages.”

I am absolutely happy that I would be on solid ground arguing that this recipe calls for Calocybe gambosa. I would, currently, be far less confident in my ability to identify these in the wild and I feel obliged to point out that cream-y coloured mushrooms with white gills are difficult to identify and you have to be aware that there is a poisonous species, Inocybe erubescens, deadly fibrecap or brick red tear mushroom, which can cause death and that it grows in similar places at the same time of year. This poisonous species stains reddish but my advice is to NEVER eat a mushroom you are not 100% sure of. This is a really good guide for helping identifying calocybe gambosa in the UK and Ireland (youtube)

If you’d like to read more about the St. George’s Mushroom in an Irish context the following pdf, pg 182 and 183 should have you covered – I can’t show you my own photos as I am not confident yet I have correctly identified them in the wild.

Recipe 2 & 3 – Book III.235, III.236

To prepare a thick soup of salted mushrooms, soak a salted mushroom for at least eight hours, changing the water; the last water should be warm. Test the mushroom and, if it has no salty taste, cut it up into small pieces, putting them into a pot with olive oil and beaten spring onions. Sauté them gently, adding in pepper, cinnamon, and saffron. When it is slightly undercooked, put in almond mild that is not too thin and has been moistened with a little verjuice, along with a handful of fine herbs and a few raisins; let it finish cooking. Serve everything hot, with mild spices over top

236. To fry salted mushrooms. Desalt the mushroom as in the previous recipe, flour it and fry it in oil. When that is done, serve it with some sugar and orange juice over it, or else cover it with green sauce or any of various other garnishes.

I can’t really make a lot of guesses here about what mushroom is intended except to note that in this translation he refers to “a mushroom” or “the mushroom”, singular not plural. So we can assume this is a big mushroom surely? Big enough to have gone to all the trouble of salting and then soaking for 8 hours with repeated water changes. And big enough that it made a dish after cooking, where mushrooms are notorious for shrinking. All of what I say here I am a great deal less confident about that my previous section.

Boletes can grow to be quite huge – noticeably bigger than one’s fist – and preserve well, they’re meaty and are often preserved by salting and then submerging in oil. They do not have gills but pores underneath, giving them a dense sponge sort of texture. I will be coming back to these in a different post, so I won’t speculate much more right now. These are extremely popular mushrooms all over europe; again there are edible and poisonous ones so never assume you can just eat one without checking thoroughly first.

Soaking is important for mushroom prepartion for some fungi – in this case I assume it is just to remove the salt that was used to preserve it, but it is noteworthy that he specifies a warm wash as the last one. Many fungi only become good to eat after they are cooked and more only if they have been soaked, cooked and recooked in fresh water.

To try to figure out what they might be I came across salt preservation of Milkcap (Lactarius) mushrooms as an old Russian and Karelian method. Milkcaps are another funny bunch, some are delicious, but unfortunately most will poison you. Some are usually bitter and unpleasant raw and only become edible after parboiling. Milkcaps get their name from the way they leak a milky substance if you damage the gills or break the head. They can grow quite large. Lactarius deliciosus or the saffron milk cap is the one most people go for and is probably the best known. As the name suggests they are prized as tasty, crunchy mushrooms and are extremely popular in Spain (rovellon) Can I find an Italian connection? Absolutely, Roman even – there is a fresco in Herculaneum which is commonly understood to depict saffron milkcaps. Lactarius deliciosus has a carrot orange cap that is convex shaped, 4 to 14 cm across, often with darker orange lines in the form of concentric circles. The cap is sticky when wet. This mushroom stains a deep green color when handled. When fresh, the mushroom milk is an orange-red latex that does not change color.

Recipes 4 Book III.262

To prepare sops of field mushrooms and other commonly eaten mushrooms.

Get common field mushrooms that have been scraped and cleaned of any sand. If they are big cut them into pieces. Scrape them and set them to soak so the sand will come away more easily and leave them better. Remove that from the water and put it with oil into a casserole pot or an earthenware vessel; sauté it gently because it will make it’s own broth by itself. For every pound of the field mushroom that is sautéed, grind up four more ounces of some that is uncooked that has soaked with half an ounce of spinach tops, moistening it with water and a little verjuice, and adding in pepper, cinnamon, a little saffron, enough salt and a little finely chopped herbs. Put everything into a casserole pot with the sautéed mushroom and cook it. Taste the broth that it has a somewhat toasted flavour and is tangy with spices. Then have slices of sautéed toast ready, the thickness of the spine of a knife, put the mushrooms on them and serve that hot. In the same way you can so any sort of edible mushroom, such as morels, brittlegills (rossignoli) and others.

I’ve made this with what I consider the common field mushroom and it’s very tasty. It also works with normal shop bought button mushrooms or any sort of mix of edible mushrooms you like really. But I hold that if Scappi says common field mushroom he means the Calocybe gambosa

St George’s mushrooms – Spring, from St. George’s Day to Early June – Please do not assume all white gilled mushrooms are these, some are deadly poisonous, great care should be taken when identifying them, gives a very good description and an excellent video. They have a very definite smell. My son and I both smelled the hint of watermelon.
Common field mushrooms Autumn – (and some damsons and wild plums)

I’ll be talking about morels shortly so I won’t do so here, I do want to make a note about the “brittlegills” though. There are a lot of brittlegills (russula) – about 190 or so in the UK and Ireland alone – and they’re quite easy to identify as Russula when you’re learning about mushrooms first but again, there are poisonous ones as well as edible ones so don’t make the assumption “any brittlegill will do” I really like the Russula genus, they tend to be beautifully formed in the wild with some lovely colours. Probably the most commonly regarded as the “edible” one is Russula Vesca . As I am NOT encouraging untrained foragers to try eating wild mushrooms I won’t be giving any general advice about them, you MUST be certain you have the right mushroom before you should even consider cooking with it. In most cases with the mushrooms I’ve mentioned here they can be bought from specialised growers or foragers if you really want to be authentic, but brittlegills are not often found at markets. I also am not aware of a mushroom known as a rossignoli, the word Scappi used, so I’m going to recommend sticking to known mushrooms for this one.

Recipe 5: Book III.263

263: To prepare sops of large, fresh parasol – funghi castagnoli – mushrooms

Get those mushrooms, cut away their stalk, peel and wash them and put them into a tourte pan with high sides or into a casserole pot, with oil, crushed cloves of garlic and enough salt; sprinkle them with pepper. If they are in a tourte pan, cook them with fire below and above; in a casserole pot, though, keep turning them over. Into that add beaten fine herbs and a few raisins. Grind the best part of the stalks in a mortar, moistening them with verjuice and saffron-tinged water, and put that in with the other and finish off cooking it. Then have slices of sautéed toast ready in dishes and on them put the mushrooms with their decoction.

Scully adds the footnote “These funghi castagnoli are, literally, ‘chestnut-coloured mushrooms’; without naming them Castelvetro describes them as coming ‘at the end of summer; they are very wide on a long, thin stalk. Some are white on the outside and russet-coloured on the inside but not as form or tightly closed as the field mushrooms, Others are a very dark, chestnut brown”

I am aware of “parasol mushroomsMacrolepiota procera as an edible here, and they do indeed match up time wise with this description. These are possible to mix up with a deadly amanita when young so again, not recommending if you don’t know what you are doing. However they do not have russet or chestnut coloured insides so I don’t think they’re what Scappi intended. I have to do more research on this one.

Recipe 6 & 7 – Book V.57 and Book V.214

V.57 To prepare crostade and pies of various fruits, beginning with the mushroom called a common field mushroom.
Get field mushrooms in their season…. Have a tourte pan ready, lined with three sheets of pastry dough and with the flaky-pastry twist around it. On the uppermost sheet put a little provature and grated dry cheese, beaten mint and marjoram, and lumps of beef marrow; sprinkle everything with sugar, pepper. cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg. On that set out the mushrooms and on them put the same amount again of the previous mixture and spices. Splash that with verjuice and orange juice. Cover it over with three more thin sheets of dough, greased hot with rendered fat or butter between each, and bake in an oven or braise it. Serve it hot with sugar on it.

In the same way you can do morels and other soft autumn mushrooms. You can put that filling into pie shells, whether of flaky pastry or not.

V.214 To prepare a crostada of mushrooms for a day in Lent in the spring
Get field mushrooms that have been scraped and are thoroughly cleaned of sand. wash them well. If they are big, cut them up into small bits. Sauté them in oil. Have a butter-greased tourte pan ready, lined with three sheets of dough in it made with fine flour, warmed almond milk or pinenut milk, and sugar. On that shell spread the mushrooms mised with beaten mint and marjoram, thin slices of parboiled desalted tuna belly and seeded musatel raisins; sprinkle everything with pepper, cloves, cinnamon and sugar, and eeither orange juice or verjuice over top. Cover it with two more similar sheets of dough brushed with oil between them. bake it in an oven or braise it. You can so all sorts of fresh funghi the same way, as well as fresh, tender peas and beans. Serve it hot.

I’m including these more for completeness than because I have much to add, again I think these are St George’s mushrooms, and if they or Morels are used the first is also Spring crostade, where the second is firmly named as such.

Morels are a spring mushroom. Know how you know I’ve never found one in the wild yet? Because you’d have heard if I had. Everyone would have, I would have been obnoxious. They look like little pointed brains on a stem, like they were stuffed into a smurf hat too long and took on the shape. They are stupidly hard to grow so most of the time if you want one you need to find one and people who know where to find them don’t give up the secret. I haven’t tried one either, I suspect I will succumb at some stage and pray the crazy prize per kilo. but I’ll need other people around to cook them with me, in case I suddenly end up with a very expensive kilo of a taste I really, really don’t like. More about morchella elata – the black morel can be found here on page 182. They tell me they can be found in Offaly, so I better get looking again, the season is now.

Recipe 8 – Book V.223

223. To prepare a tourte of fresh funghi.
Get morels or else the mushroom that grows in the woods at the foot of chestnut trees and briar bushes, which is round and firm and tends towards an orange colour. The safest thing is to bring them to a boil in water, though thety re much more flavourful raw. In any case, whether raw or cooked, peel them carefully, beat them small with a knide and sauté them in oil. Then get those ingredients that are use above in recipe 222, adding in beaten and sautées spring onions or else a small clove of garlic. Make up a tourte with them in the way outlined in the above recipe. ”

I *ADORE* this one, it’s because of this description I went and looked up all the other mushroom recipes. I was intrigued by the description of the mushroom by where it grows. I discovered an absolutely fabulous looking mushroom called Amanita caesarea, commonly known as the Ovolo or Caesar’s mushroom. I cannot, alas, get my hands on any, they do not grow here. They are the most gorgeous of orange colours with yellow gills, they were called Boletus in Roman times but that name applies to a whole other family now instead. Amanita caesarea belongs in the same family as the fly agaric and the deadly Deathcap, which is probably why even in Scappi this came with a “maybe you should cook it first” warning. Some people can be sensitive to a fungus their friends eat without any issue, so if you are trying a new mushroom for the first time always only try a little.

Photo by Archenzo, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Oh, goodness. Now I want to cook with mushrooms this week!

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