Russula xerampelina, “the shrimp mushroom,” is a plump, brittle fruit with a viscid cap whose color variation is captured by the species’ poetic surname which means, “the color of dried vine leaves.” Rosy, to red-brown, to just plain brown, its gills are white, and its stem often (but not always!) has a telltale “blush” of pink.
Its flavor is indeed, if one is suggestible and strains their imagination, a little shellfishy. But the common epithet is typically thought to refer to the aroma: shrimplike. As it matures and raises its pileus to expose it’s lamellae, that aroma becomes detectable and finally penetrating. But by then it’s too late.
A similar-looking poisonous species, R. emetica, and the mere fact that it is gilled, deters novices. But that aroma, combined with the sweet and mild, rather than painfully radishy and acrid, flavor are the sure and faithful qualities that set them apart. Yes, it really does come down to aroma and flavor.
“Should I really put something in my mouth whose name means ‘the sickener’ in order to discern the edible from the poisonous, gangster?”
It depends on your level of commitment, doesn’t it? Do you want to be a perpetual dilletante, always nibbling around the edges, but in the end just fodder for the hoard of heavily-armed outcasts and survivalists who will surely seize control of the industrial food supply when our foreign policy fiascos and internal political and tribal strife result in an eternal river of poor leadership complemented by general civil unrest? Or do you want to be an intimate of the sauvage banquet?
Michael Kuo, a mycologist who maintains the mushroom identification site mushroomexpert.com, wrote, in 2005, a little diatribe where he insists that the scent of R. xerampelina is not at all crustacean, but vaginal. Because men have been responsible for so much of the mycological taxonomy that we still use today, Kuo argues, “spermatic” eventually became an acceptable olfactory descriptor, while “vaginal” is still not. Then he goes on to ask: what does sperm smell like anyway?
Do some mushrooms indeed smell like sperm, or is that just wishful thinking? Losing myself in reflection, a memory surfaces: a wastebasket filled with wads of facial, bath, whatever tissue, and a gray scent, the scent of decaying fungus. Adolescence. Before we gained the privacy and good sense to flush those things. So perhaps semen smells vaguely fungal, and not the other way around.
Kuo admits, however, that we not only have the genus Phallus, which is indeed disgustingly phallic, but the species Amanita vaginata which, like most amanitas, does indeed emerge from a protective sheath. Perhaps not coincidentally, Amanita vaginata is commonly known (to get really off-topic) as the “grisette.” In 18th and 19th century France and England, the word referred to a coquettish, working-class woman with intellectual aspirations. Grisettes traded on their charms, physical and intellectual, to gain access to the Bohemian intelligentsia. The fungal fruit that gracefully emerges from a cocoon-like volva is brown to grey, slender for the genus, and strikingly poised. It is the most conspicuous edible of a genus that includes several lethally poisonous (and equally, if more strikingly, beautiful) species.
Back to the subject at hand: If we agree with Kuo about the aroma, what do we do with this vaginal-smelling mushroom? The preeminent expert for West coast mycological taxonomy, David Arora begins thus: “edible and unforgettable–it is one of the least appreciated of our edible fungi…. The young, nutty caps are caps are superb stuffed with grated cheese, chives, walnuts, and parsley and then broiled.” The irrepressible mycophile goes on to exclaim that, unlike their brethren, “they are rarely riddled with maggots!” I would have loved to go all-in with the xerampelina like that, but until now I’d only ever encountered one or two at an outing which hadn’t been host to a writhing mass of diptera grubs (which insect family has the longest phallus, in relation to body size, of any animal). Those I’d always mixed in with the others, the boletus, the cantharellus, sulfureum, pleurotus, armillaria, the mushrooms for commoners—not to be confused with the common mushrooms—in some ramshackle melange: risotto, burritos, spaghetti con funghi. I didn’t yet know about xerampelina‘s singularity, it’s subtle sophistication. It’s popularity with the the diptera flies should have been all the recommendation I needed, but they’re flies.
So basically my wife didn’t trust them (me) enough to allow me to serve them as the main feast, as I (we) now feel they so richly deserve. She didn’t know that I’d been feeding them to her all along in small quantities all along, combined with the more familiar species. But I wonder: how long must one go on not sickening (or killing) someone before they trust you without question, unhesitatingly, absolument? How long before we can eat a grisette, in other words? I don’t know, but I started with some ham and xerampelina crepes:
I made some chestnut crepes with this recipe that is accredited to Martha Stewart, and we”ll just leave that here:
1 1/2 C sifted chestnut flour
1/8 tsp salt
1 1/4 C milk
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 C (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
Mix the first four ingredients in the order listed. Whisk in one tablespoon melted butter. The rest of the butter is to grease the pan a little before each crepe. Or you could just do what I did: put all the butter into the batter, grease the pan before your first crepe, and be done with it. I will say that this recipe is a little unsatisfactory, as it’s really for desert crepes. I’d like a more floury, less eggy crepe next time.
Then I made mornay sauce. Recipes are so fucking boring. Here’s a recipe written by dear old Craig Claiborne, probably taught to him by Pierre Franey. So, like Pierre, we use gruyere instead of cheddar (and this recipe makes about twice as much as I did).
I sliced the mushrooms and sauteed them in butter, with a sprinkle of salt and some thinly julienned red chilies. Chilies with mushrooms is, I think, an Oregon thing. Witness the treatment of mushrooms at so many classic Oregon establishments—Higgins, Joel Palmer House, Columbian Cafe…
Then I put the mushrooms into the mornay:
The dabbling of mornay over the top is to keep them moist while they bake, uncovered, at 450F until the ends brown a bit and they are heated through, 15-20 minutes.