I’ve always loved that early part of Lord of the Rings when the hobbits are still in the Shire, walking and singing their way past familiar places before things get scary. The transition is that tense scene when they cross Farmer Maggot’s fields to escape their first Black Rider, and are rescued by the old farmer who offers them a brief return to domestic comforts over a meal of mushrooms. The chapter ends with Mrs Maggot giving Frodo another fragrant basketful of mushrooms for the onward journey — you can never have enough, it seems, if you are a hobbit.
When I first read the books in my early teens, I thought bacon and mushrooms sounded like the most romantic dish it was possible to eat, and the notion still appeals to my imagination, making me think of courage in the dark and good will. They make good dinner fare with a fried egg; and I sometimes use them in baked egg dishes for brunches, with a few chives – easy to do in a large casserole for a group.
I think of mushrooms on toast as being old-fashioned, too, and terribly English and Lord Peter Whimsey somehow — something Bunter might bring him on a tray when they’re in the country. I can’t think of the last time I saw mushrooms on toast on a menu (well, I can actually: it was 1987 in a tea room in Norwich), so don’t know if they remain anyone’s favourite anymore, but if they aren’t, they should be. I like the idea of a little meal that’s hot but not taxing, and redolent of high teas and meals on trays, or earthy fields and woven baskets.
Julia Child famously advised that when cooking mushrooms, one should “never crowd the pan”. They brown better if they have room, and steam into watery greyness if they are piled on. So mushrooms on toast are a good way to do just enough for a couple of slices of buttered bread. It only takes one handful of mushrooms for a round. So perfect.
If you want to add bacon, cut it into bite-sized bits and fry it to crispness first, then set aside. Add the mushrooms to the same pan with a little butter, salt and pepper them, and sizzle over medium high heat until they brown on the edges and just start to give up their juices. Stop there, squeeze on just a little lemon juice or a squirt of Worcestershire Sauce (my father calls it Wustersheershiresheershireshash), and maybe a pinch of chopped parsley, and combine with the bacon at the last to avoid it getting soft. Grab a fork, close your eyes, and pretend you’ve wandered into Bam Furlong or Lord Peter’s library.
And did you know that mushrooms can become a great source of vitamin D if you put them in the sun for just an hour? Without this exposure they have none, but just an hour on a sunny shelf can reverse this to an amazing degree. And it doesn’t disappear if you store them in the dark again afterwards. Whoever would have thought?