Why Jewish culture is mushrooming
Through the ages, Jews have always been avid collectors - and eaters - of fungus
Autumn does not only mean golden leaves and ripe fruit - it is mushroom time. Combining my twin passions of mycology (the study of fungi) and Jewish history - in the tradition of the elephant and the Jewish question - I want to explain the link between mushrooms and Jews.
For one thing, mushrooms and Jews have in common that neither fit neatly into one particular category. Fungi grow in the soil or on other substances, especially wood, and they can be parasitic or saprophytic (bringing mutual benefit to the host). They do not seem to move and appear to grow like plants, although much more quickly (Shakespeare referred to "midnight mushrumps" in The Tempest).
But unlike plants, they are not green, or at least the few species that are green have an unhealthy greenish tinge like verdigris or mould.
In the Middle Ages, mushrooms and toadstools were believed to be created by lightning strikes. They were later classified with green plants, such as conifers and seaweeds that, like mushrooms, produce spores instead of seeds. Recently, however, it has been discovered that fungi are closer to the animal kingdom, since they are made of chitin, the substance from which insects are formed. There are even some types of fungi - known as myxomycetes or slime moulds - that can move! They do so very slowly and only slide over the wood on which they grow.
So where do the Jews come in? Jews have always been big mushroom eaters because the large, fleshy varieties have a meat-like quality but are strictly parev. According to the late Rabbi Louis Rabinowitz, in the Strasbourg district of the Rhineland in the Middle Ages, fungi were known as "Jews' meat" and Jews were known to be avid mushroom collectors.
There is even a pale-brown fungus with a strangely convoluted shape like an ear that is known as "Jew's Ear" (auricularia auricula-judae). In fact, this is a corruption of Judas's Ear because the fungus grows almost exclusively on elder trees and, according to legend, Judas hanged himself on an elder tree.
The Jew's Ear fungus, though it looks nothing like the mushrooms you find in the shops, is perfectly edible. In fact, Batchelors produces a soup made from Jew's Ears that it advertises as made from "woodland mushrooms" because somehow "Jew's Ear Soup" does not sound quite as appealing. The Jew's Ear is closely related to a Chinese mushroom called Cloud Ear and can be used in the same way, in soups and stews.
If you decide to go mushroom-hunting this autumn, once you start looking for them, you will find fungi growing in all sorts of nooks and crannies - even on your own front lawn. In fact, the Fairy Ring mushroom that grows on lawns is a delicious and easily recognisable fungus and probably the commonest in the whole of the United Kingdom.
But there are plenty of wild mushrooms to be had from the shops. You will find the porcini, cep or penny bun mushroom imported in dried form from Italy and found in Italian grocers and even in supermarkets. Here is my favourite recipe for it. You can make it parev with butter and vegetable stock, or meaty with milkless margarine and beef stock. The parev version is excellent with cottage cheese or thick yogurt, the meat version can be served with a meat stew or slices of salt beef.
Kasha with mushrooms
● 225g/9oz kasha (buckwheat groats)
● 1 large egg, lightly beaten
● ½ teaspoon salt
● ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
● 15g (½ oz) butter or margarine
● 500 ml (16 fl oz) chicken or vegetable stock
● 75g (3 oz) dried porcini (ceps), soaked in a cup of hot water for 20 minutes
● Place the kasha in a mixing bowl and stir the egg into it, until the kasha grains are coated evenly. Season with salt and pepper.
● Melt the butter or margarine in a deep frying pan or saucepan with a lid over low heat.
● Add the kasha and cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the grains separate, 2–4 minutes.
● Remove the pan from the heat and add the stock and mushrooms. Stir well, reduce the heat and cover pan before returning to the heat.
● Simmer for 10 minutes, then remove the lid, stir the kasha and cook for another 5 minutes or until the liquid has been absorbed.
● Serve hot.
Josephine Bacon's 'An Introduction to the Mushrooms and Fungi of Britain and Northern Europe' is published by John Beaufoy Books.