Elegant mushroom recipes

A French dish from the fourteenth century
Extra - mushroom pie from 1604

The Fall of the Rebel Angels. Pieter Breughel the Elder (1562)When I give a talk on medieval cuisine I always serve a sampling of medieval dishes and spiced wine. The recipe on this page never fails to be a success. The pasties were originally served during the first course of a medieval banquet, but in a modern menu with venison they would be an excellent starter. And the pasties are also great as vegetarian main course.
Since I never know exactly how many people will attend my talks, for these occasions I prepare a kind of pizza the size of the baking tray of my oven. So, a very versatile dish.

The picture on the right is a painting by Pieter Breughel the Elder, The fall of the rebel angels (1562). The picture is filled with monsterlike creatures that call medieval painter Hieronymus Bosch to mind. In the red 'circle' there's a mushroom, enlarged in the picture below. Mushrooms have always had a bad reputation, not only because some are deadly poisonous ("Some mushrooms you eat only once ..."), but also because of their mysterious growth. How is it possible that these strange plants could come into existence from one day to another? And, lacking visible roots, where do they get there food? Mushrooms were considered 'excrementa terrae', the excrements of the earth.

Fragment from 'The fall of the angels'

Mushrooms in medieval cuisine

Mushrooms are gifts of nature, so you'd think they have always been a welcome addition to the meal. Not so. As far as I know the mushroom pasty below is the only medieval written recipe that uses mushrooms. That is not to say that they weren't prepared, just that the recipes were never considered apt for the rich kitchen. Platina, the Italian humanist, writes in De honeste voluptate et valetudine (1474) about 'boleti et fungi' that, although they are eaten by some, they were often the cause of crimes. He mentions the case of the murder of Roman emperor Claudius by his wife Agrippina in 54 AD. Platina advises us to only eat mushrooms that were gathered by experienced people, and even they can make a mistake: whole families have died because of one wrong mushroom in the pot. Mushrooms should be prepared with garlic because, still according to Platina, garlic is a good antidote. He also describes truffles as big as a large quince, and mentions African truffles as the tastiest. Truffles are also an aphrodisiac, which is the reason they are so popular on the tables of lusty nobles. Platina finds that completely detestable  ("detestandum omnino est"). (More about Platina)

Mushrooms in post-medieval cuisine

After the Middle Ages mushrooms quickly gained in popularity. From the seventeenth century onward, truffles, morels and other mushrooms were used in great quantities. In the cookbook Ouverture de cuisine from Lancelot de Casteau (1604) there appeared some recipes with tartoufles. The Belgian gastronome and writer Léo Moulin (1906-1996) wrote in 1983, in an article in the facsimilé edition of the Ouverture that these were recipes for potatoes. However, a few years later he revised his opinion: the recipes were for truffles (Léo Moulin, Living and eating in Europe, 1988, p.160). As is often the case with the internet, his outmoded view can be found everywhere, even on the French wikipedia under the lemma Lancelot de Casteau, but the correct but less spectacular view is nowhere to be found. Until now. Since Lancelot also has a recipe for mushroom pie, this can be found below as extra recipe.

Cultivated mushrooms

The first to describe the cultivation of mushrooms was the Frenchman Nicolas de Bonnefons, in Le jardinier françois from1651. He used dung of mules and donkeys to grow champignons de bois and champignons de prez, and mousserons (Calocybe gambosa). Morels and truffles could not (and still can't) be cultivated, they have to be ' hunted'. In the sequel to Le jardinier François, Les délices de la campagne from 1654, Bonnefons presents several recipes for truffles, white mushrooms, mousserons and morels.

The Traktaat van de kampernoeljes (Treatise on field mushrooms)

The first text in Dutch about mushrooms is the Tractaet van de campernoillien, ghenaemt duyvelsbroot (Treatise on field mushrooms, named devil's bread) from Johannes Fransiscus van Sterbeeck. It was printed in Antwerp 1668 as part of a pirate edition of De verstandige kock (The sensible cook). He describes several mushrooms, and provides a few recipes, like a mushroom pasty with sweetbread, marrow, oysters and gooseberries. Taxonomy was not yet based on biological criteria, but on similarity in form or colour, so it is rather difficult to determine exactly what mushrooms Van Sterbeeck describes. The treatise has been translated into modern Dutch in 2006 by Marleen Willebrands and Arno van 't Hoog.

The original recipe
The main recipe on this page is from the Ménagier de Paris, a text from the end of the fourteenth century that is more than just a cookbook. In my article on medieval mustard and hypocras I have written more about this Ménagier. It wasn't printed in its own time, but there are several manuscripts. The first printed edition appeared in the nineteenth century, by Baron Hiérome Pichon, in 1846/47. In 1928 Eileen Power based her translation in strange, archaic English on this edition. The most recent scientific edition of the oldfrench text is from 1981, by Georgine Brereton and Janet Ferrier. They left out several passages from the first, non-culinary, part they deemed unauthentic. Their edition was used in 1994 for the translation in modern French by Karin Ueltschi. The most recent English translation from 2009 has taken all previous editions into account. This translation by Gina Greco and Christine Rose is calledThe Goodwife's guide, because according to the translators it is the woman that is the subject of this book. The edition by Greco and Rose is valuable because they used the complete text of the Ménagier, including the passages left out by Brereton and Ferrier.
The French text below is from the edition from Brereton and Ferrier, page 230. The English translation is from the edition by Greco and Rose, p.300, and I've also added the translation by Power, just for comparison.

Oldfrench (Brereton and Ferrier)
Champignons d' une nuyt sont les meilleurs, et sont petiz, vermeilz dedens, cloz dessus. Et les couvient peler, puis laver en eaue chaude et pourboulir. Qui en veult mectre en pasté, si y mette de l'uille, du frommage et de la pouldre. Item, mectez les entre deux plats sur charbons, et mectez ung petit de sel, du frommage et de la pouldre. L'en les treuve en la fin de may et en juing.
Translation Greco and Rose (2009)
Mushrooms one night old are the best. They are little and red inside, closed at the top. Peel them and wash them in hot water and boil. If you want to put them in a pasty, add oil, cheese, and powdered spices. Item, set them them between two dishes on the coals and then add a little salt, cheese, and powedered spices. They are found at the end of May and in June.
Translation Power (1928)
Mushrooms of one night be the best and they be little and red within and closed at the top; and they must be peeled and then washed in hot water and parboiled and if you wish to put them in a pasty add oil, cheese and spice powder. Item, put them between two dishes on the coals and then add a little salt, cheese and spice powder. They be found at the end of May and June.

Modern adaptation of the recipe Print the recipe on this page
This recipe has some typically medieval vagueness: what kind of dough is used for the pasty, is it one large pasty or several smaller, closed or open, fried or oven-baked? And what spices did the Ménagier mean with his 'pouldre'? Medieval recipes for dough are practically non-existent, whether for pasty or for bread. Just choose what you like best, or what is best suited for the occasion: a pie, a quiche, small pasties. The 'pouldre' is the medieval equivalent of curry powder, a ready-made mixture of spices. The Ménagier provides us with a recipe for it elsewhere in his book: 2 heaped tablespoons ginger, a small teaspoon each of cinnamon, cloves, grains of paradise and sugar, to be used as needed.
For 1 large pasty up to 40 small pasties.

Mushroom pasties from the Ménagier de ParisIngredients
250 gram (2 1/2 cup or 1/2 pound) white mushrooms
100 gram (3 1/2 oz) firm Brie de Meaux, or fresh goat cheese
100 gram (3 1/2 oz) Gruyère (the French, not the Swiss) or Parmesan, Pecorino or Manchego
2 tsp in all of ginger, cinnamon, cloves, grains of paradise, sugar (ratio 3:1:1:1:1)
pinch of salt
2 slices of white bread without crust (optional)
dash of olive oil
450 to 600 gram (1 to 1 1/3 pound) pastry dough (depending on whether you make an open pie or a closed pasty)
butter to grease the mould

Preparation in advance
Washing and peeling mushrooms is not something we do anymore. Just wipe them with a paper towel, cut off the end of the stalk, and then halve, quarter, slice, dice or chop the mushrooms.
Use a blender to crumble the bread. I added this to the recipe because mushrooms contain a lot of moisture. By covering the dough with a thin layer of bread crumbs before adding the stuffing you prevent the bottom becoming squishy.
If you use Brie for the pasty, cut off the white crust before dicing the cheese. Do this directly from the refrigerator, because once at room temperature the cheese will run off your cutting board. If you use fresh goat cheese, just crumble it.
Grate the Gruyere, Parmezan or Manchego.

Heat olive oil, sautée the mushrooms a couple of minutes until they have released their moisture. Drain and pat dry with paper towels to remove excess fat. Leave them to cool.
Add Brie or fresh goat cheese and one tablespoon grated cheese to the mushrooms, with salt and spices.
Preheat the oven to 180dgC/355oF. Grease the mould you plan to use with butter, dress with a sheet of pastry dough. Sprinkle bread crumbs on the bottom if you want to, to absorb excess moisture. Fill the dough with the mushroom stuffing. You can leave the pie open, or cover it with another sheet of dough.
Place the pasty (or small pasties) in the middle of the oven. Small ones are done in twelve to fifteen minutes, a large springform takes thirty to forty minutes (depending on your oven). When ready, remove the pasty from the oven and let cool for five minutes before demoulding. Use a cake rack to let the pasty or pasties cool to room temperature.
You can also cover an oven tray with the pasty dough and spread out the mushroom stuffing on it. Bake for twenty minutes. The effect will be a large 'pizza', and you can use a pizza wheel to cut the pie into small, one-bite pieces.

To serve
The pasty can be served as soon as it is demoulded, you can also reheat it in the oven (this works best with small pasties). But this mushroom pasty (or pie, or pizza) is also excellent at room temperature.

Pasties were the perfect medieval take-away food. They were bought at a pastry baker's, and you could eat them cold while on the road, or serve them as an extra dish at home. These pasties always had a lid of dough.

Pasteideeg van Lancelot de Casteau

The original recipe for dough from De Casteau... and make dough of fine flour with eggs and butter and some water, and make sure the dough is not too firm. Then knead the dough well for a quarter of an hour, and make very thin and large sheets of dough and put one on the other, spread melted butter between the two, and then put them in a mould ...

250 gram (2 cups) flour
1 egg
1 tsp salt
3 Tbsp soft butter
3/4 deciliter water
another 2 Tbsp melted butter

Preparation in advance
Combine flour with salt. Melt the butter in a microwave or small pan. The butter must not turn colour. Stir the melted butter with water and egg. Knead with the flour to a supple, elastic dough. Cover with plastic foil or a towel and let rest for half an hour (not in the refrigerator).

Divide the dough into two portions. Roll each of them out to a thin sheet. Spread melted butter on one dough sheet, cover with the other sheet. Roll out together if necessary (depends on the thickness you want), and dress a pie mould or springform with it.

All descriptions of ingredients

Brie - Soft cheese with a crusty white mould, originally made of raw (unpasteurized) cow milk. It originates from the region East of Paris. Most Brie you can buy today is made from pasteurized milk, to the detriment ot the taste of the cheese, but it eliminates listeria bacteria. That is important for pregnant women, because this bacteria can cause miscarriage or a very sick baby. However, if you or your guests aren't expecting, look for unpasteurized Brie. By the way, in unpasteurized Gouda cheese there's no danger of listeria because of the different production process.
Brie has a long history. It was already produced during the reign of Charlemagne who enjoyed the cheese in 774. In the fifteenth century the cheese inspired Charles, Duke of Orleans (1394-1465) to write a little poem to accompany 240 whole Bries that were send to as many ladies at the court: Mon doux coeur, je vous envoie / Soigneusement choisi par moi / Le brie de Meaux délicieux. / Il vous dira que, malheureux, / Par votre absence je languis / Au point d'en perdre l'appétit. / Et c'est pourquoi je vous l 'envoie. / Quel sacrifice c'est pour moi! Famous is the anecdote about the Congress in Vienna in 1814/1815, when Talleyrand, to lighten the mood, organized a competition between the attending nations which produced the best cheese. Brie was the unanimous favourite and received the honorary title roi des fromages, et fromage des rois.
Grains of Paradise - This spice was used in the European kitchen from the thirteenth to the eighteenth century, and was at the top of its popularity in fourteenth century France. The plant (Aframomum melegueta) is related to ginger, but it is the seeds that are used as spice. It is still in use as spice in the region of West Africa, where it is indigenous. Since it is not easy to come by, you can also use an alternative. Cardamom is often mentioned, but you get the best effect if you add a little black pepper to the cardamom.
Parmesan cheese - Italian hard cheese of cow milk. There are two kinds, Grana Padano and Parmigiano Reggiano. The second costs about twice as much as the first. When using cheese in Italian dishes, it's not necessary to always use the Reggiano. But sometimes you have to, like on carpaccio (the famous dish with raw beef). In some old French cookbooks Parmesan is called fromage de Milan. Pecorino is also an Italian cheese, similar in many ways to Parmesan, but made with sheep milk. Manchego is a hard cheese of sheep milk from Spain.
I sincerly hope that I don't even have to explainthat you must never use packages of grated cheese in stead of grating your own.

The editions below are in my possession. Links refer to available editions.
All books mentioned on this site (with short reviews)