Tuesday, 30 November 2010


“Life is too short to stuff a mushroom.” So wrote Shirley Conran in her 1970s bestseller Superwoman, a book brimming with advice for women on how to dodge domestic drudgery.  If Conran believed that snapping off a mushroom’s stalk, then laying it cup-side down on a baking sheet with a dab of butter and a sprinkling of bread crumbs was a scandalous waste of womanly time, then how would she deal with the notion that somewhere in the heart of a Lancashire kitchen there existed an overworked housewife painstakingly peeling a bagful of mushrooms in readiness for her husband’s supper? That housewife was my mother and her dexterous peeling formed part of the mushroom broth ritual. My father waited languorously, sequestered away from the kitchen in his comfy chair as haughty and distant as a Roman Emperor, while his tender slave-girl  daintily rid the mushrooms of their skins. I looked on, enthralled, as Mum would produce two neat piles: one of peeled mushrooms, creamy in their nakedness and soft to touch like newly shorn lambs; the other of silky peel, curling in tranquil layers as delicate as the palest, softest rose petals. Mum would then pull off the stalks and cut the mushrooms into small dice. I once asked if I could have the stalks: “Can you fry them for me and make me a mushroom butty?” The answer was a firm “no,” Dad would know if his mushroom broth contained only the cups. Not I, or any of my siblings, would ever deliberately risk provoking my father’s wrath and so I didn’t ask again.

In a frying pan she would then melt a thick slice of butter, and while it foamed would tip in the mound of mushrooms, there seemed such a feast but Mum always appeased my hungry eyes by assuring me that the mushrooms would shrivel, and that there would only ever be enough for Dad. With her thumb she would depress the silver cap from the milk bottle, welding it to one edge of the glass rim so she could pour a generous amount of creamy milk into the pan of mushrooms. Stood on a chair by the stove, I would stare into the pan; like magic, little beads of golden fat appeared on the surface as the milky broth rose to a simmer. Mum gazed into the pan too, but not with my wonderment, she was only anxious for the milk not to boil over. In a large bowl, she would then decant the pan’s contents, and I would blink away tiny droplets of mushroom soup as it sputtered its way into the dish. Complete with spoon, Mum would gently carry the steaming bowl up the hall and into the living room. I followed and waited at the door until I heard Dad say, “Ta, love” in a gruff but satisfied tone. I would then dash back into the kitchen and wait for Mum to clear up the waste. Did I say waste? Well that’s what it was. If Mum had inherited any of her previous generation’s wartime thrift instead of exploiting 1970s profligacy she would have sautéed that mushroom peel, spread it onto a slice of bread and satiated her little child’s desperate craving for mushrooms. Instead she swiped up the peel, screwed it into a ball with the brown paper bag and threw it into the bin. I sat patiently, nibbling my fingernails in anticipation of any dregs left in my father’s supper bowl. On occasion there would be a tiny fleck of mushroom to tease out and lick from my finger in the manner of a clever cat. Sometimes there would be a spoonful or two of buff-coloured milk, tepid and sweet, which I would drink from the bowl savouring it as any modern day child would a McDonald’s milkshake.
Last week, I resurrected my mother’s mushroom broth. I tired easily while peeling the mushrooms and just managed enough to conjure up the image of lambs and rose petals. And as I skated the slimy mushrooms around the pan of melted butter and just before I poured in the milk, my culinary instincts kicked in: mushrooms, milk, butter ... that’s only ever going to taste like, well ... mushrooms, milk and butter. All soups, surely, cry out for a background note of onion, a grinding of black pepper or at least some other less milky form of stock? But I chose to ignore this accumulated knowledge of soup-making as I stirred in the milk, gritting my teeth at a peevish need to rekindle my so-called mushroom-deprived childhood. There seemed to be an immense amount of mushrooms (was my mother lying when she said they shrivelled?) bobbing up and down in their liquid like shiny ornamental pebbles and sure enough - tiny buttery bubbles visited the surface obediently, assuring me that my memories, at least, showed some signs of validity. In an aging Virago paperback novel  I remember once reading the phrase: “Consummation can never fulfil the glory of desire,” and so too this soup, this magical edible potion of my childhood appeared in front of me, glistening with all the promise of a taste of paradise, and then swamping me with disappointment. I sat down, spooned the soup into my mouth and felt a crazy sadness. Sad for my mother who once asked me why I always needed to refer to cookbooks. Sad also for my father, punished with senility, as he waits patiently in the tiny room of a care home for yet another bowl of slop.

Looking back it seems easy for me to understand why a nature-loving six year old might be charmed by a mushroom. And not just for its sweet and nutty flavour. It smells of the forest floor after rainfall – dank and earthy. It rolls in your palm like a chubby dormouse and yet is as light as a fir cone. Upturn it and there you see a dusky underskirt of frills, packed tight like hundreds of tiny feathers. I can only sit now and wonder why, when Mum’s back was turned, I didn’t steal a mushroom from the bag and sneak it into my bedroom for hiding under the bed along with my shoebox of half dead butterflies and match-boxed caterpillars.

Mushroom Pâté
 My pâté of choice would either be smoked salmon or smoked mackerel but I felt I had to create this vegetarian starter when some friends came round for dinner during the summer. Not that they are vegetarian, I might add, it was just that I had a hunch that they would have some sort of aversion to smoked fish. I still don’t know what feelings they have for smoked fish but what I did find out that night was that they liked this pâté and even asked me for the recipe.

So, here it is:
1 Onion (chopped)
1 Garlic clove (crushed)
1 tbsp oil
300g Mushrooms (chopped)
Juice of one lemon
225g Full fat soft cheese (eg. Philadelphia)
Salt and ground black pepper
Chopped parsley to serve

Serves 4 – 6

Heat the oil in a frying pan and add the onion and garlic. Cook gently until the onions become soft and almost translucent, this may take about 5 minutes.

Add the chopped mushrooms, lemon juice and seasoning and continue cooking for another 5 minutes or until the mushrooms have cooked through.
Remove from the heat and allow to cool before tipping into a food processor along with the soft cheese. On a particularly health-conscious afternoon, I tried making this dish with low fat soft cheese and was disappointed with the resulting mousse-like texture. Lesson now learned I would always, always (even if my waistline felt a little stouter than usual) use full fat cheese for pâté.

Blend the mixture until fairly smooth and spoon into a serving dish. Cover and keep refrigerated until needed.

Sprinkle with chopped parsley just before serving.

Yesterday I ate my pâté with plain old white bread toasted as this picture illustrates, it was good but not half as good as the bread I toasted today: Irish Wheaten Soda Bread made with buttermilk, thickly sliced and placed with care (it crumbles) on the grill pan. This bread makes the perfect toast precisely because it doesn’t toast perfectly, if you get what I mean. And this is because the buttermilk ensures the bread stays moist and crumbly, only crisping the crusty edges while it heats up under the grill. The added joy is, that while grilling, this wheaten bread lets out a sweet and comforting aroma like a wholemeal scone being freshly baked.  I sat by the window, spread my hot soda bread with its perfect accompaniment of thick, slushy pâté and watched the snow slide from the rooftops. Bliss.