Eating mushrooms in early modern France

21 May

Today, I’m reading the journal of John Lauder of Fountainhall, a Scottish advocate, judge, and legal thinker. My interest lies before all of that, though – I’m looking at his travels through France and Europe in the 1660s. Nineteen years old, he set off to France, and we have his impressively detailed account, recording everything from sermons he listened to, stories he heard, and jokes about the Flemish.

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The journals are full of information about early modern France, and what’s leapt out at me today is the attention Lauder pays to the food he encounters on his travels. He notes the way the French store their wine, gets into a row about a chicken dinner swindle, and muses on the differences between French and English ‘pottage’, charmingly describing the effect of the Gallic brew as ‘very loosing’.

This is one of the few travel accounts I’ve come across which actually provides recipes. Here he is talking about making a vegetable soup à la française:

“If a man would make a good soup wtout [without] flech, he would cut me doune some onions wt a lump of butter ether fresh or salt, which he sall frie in a pan, then pour in some vinaigre, then vater, then salt and spice, and let al boil together, then pour it on your sup, and I promise you a good sup.”

What I really wanted to share with you today, though, is Lauder’s first encounter with mushrooms. I’ll admit here and now that I don’t know very much about the history of the mushroom in Scottish food or anywhere else, really. But it seems from his amazement – not to mention his unwillingness to try them – that he’s not come across the edible mushroom before.

“We was not a little amazed to sy [see] them on dy [one day] making ready amongs other things to our diet upright poddock stools, which they call potirons or champignons. They’le raise in a night. They grow in humid, moisty places as also wt us. They frie them in a pan wt butter, vinegar, salt, and spice. They eated of it greedily vondering that I eated not so heartily of them as they did; a man seimes just to be eating of tender collops in eating them. But my praejudice hindered me.”

Just to gloss some of the stranger stuff here – a poddock or puddock is a toad, hence a poddock stool is a toadstool, which could be used interchangeably with mushroom in the seventeenth century. It could, of course, have a connotation of being poisonous – which might explain both Lauder’s surprise and his choice of term. When he compares the mushrooms to collops, he means slices of bacon.

I’ve come across descriptions of foods that English-speaking travellers found strange before, and particularly enjoyed the seeming fascination with couscous found in accounts of seventeenth-century North Africa – one writer called it ‘cuscuscus’, apparently unsure when to stop. But Lauder’s mushroom anecdote is interesting for a different reason: I would never have considered whether something so central to our diet (well, mine), something that pops up out of the ground across Britain and Ireland, would have been so startling on the early modern plate. This is a nice anecdote, but more than that, it’s a salutary reminder to this historian not to get so comfortable thinking about a period that it loses its strangeness. I love the slightly wistful tone of Lauder’s “But my praejudice hindered me” as he contemplates a culinary adventure he’s passed up; right now, I’m hoping my own prejudices don’t get in the way of understanding his time.

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Lauder’s DNB article is here – as ever, needs a university subscription. For the slightly less discerning, here he is on Wikipedia.

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