When compiling How to Skin a Lion I was so fascinated by the many lost and outmoded skills I resolved to try some of the more achievable instructions.
Instead I focused on some of the skills I could easily recreate in the hope that it might inspire others to have a go too.
When reading through Georgian and Victorian texts for How to Skin a Lion, I came across a number of references to mushroom ketchup.
My interest was piqued as I had never heard of this forgotten condiment and wondered what it tasted like and how it was used.
I selected the recipe published in A Shilling’s Worth of Practical Receipts (1856) for the book because it contained ingredients that are readily available today and I vowed to have a go at making it myself.
The recipe begins
‘Gather the broad flapped and red gilded mushroom before the sun has discoloured them.’
My gathering involved selecting a 250g box of chestnut mushrooms from Sainsbury’s online and awaiting delivery. They did, however, appear unharmed by the sun.
‘Wipe, and break them into an earthern pan. To every three handfuls throw in one handful of salt, stir them two or three times a day till the salt is dissolved, and the mushrooms are liquid.’
The second problem was that I misread the instructions. In a fit of gay abandon I confused the ratio of mushroom to salt and ended up adding a handful of salt for every handful of mushrooms.
Luckily I soon noted my error, cursed my inattention, chucked the resulting salty sludge, returned to my computer and re-ordered a box of mushrooms from Mr Sainsbury.
New mushrooms arrived I carefully broke them into pieces. From my 250g I ended up with six handfuls of mushrooms and this time I correctly added two handfuls of salt and gave them a good stir.
The recipe does not disclose exactly how long the mushrooms should be left for, so I covered them with a tea towel and parked them in a dark cupboard. Every day I gave them a little stir and soon they were indeed turning to liquid.
However after about five days they didn’t seem to be breaking down further (to be honest I think I should have broken the mushrooms into smaller pieces to start with). So I left them for a further two days for good measure before moving onto the next step.
‘Bruise what bits remain, set the whole over a gentle fire till the goodness is extracted; strain the hot liquor through a fine hair sieve, boil it gently with allspice, whole black pepper, ginger, horse-radish, and an onion or shallots, with two or three laurel leaves.’
I tried mushing the remaining mushrooms with a wooden spoon but they seemed resolutely spongy and resistant to breaking up further so I popped them in a saucepan and gently warmed them to see if this would break them down further.
At this point the mushrooms began to smell delicious, radiating a wonderful earthy smell throughout the kitchen. Encouraged by this development I dipped my spoon in the pot to taste. Big mistake! The saltiness was overpowering and I had to spit it out, but the aftertaste was promising.
I left the mushrooms to gently cook for about 20 minutes while I prepared the rest of the ingredients.
½ onion, thinly sliced.
2 bay leaves (I assumed this was what they meant when they said laurel leaves)
16 black peppercorns
A thumb sized piece of fresh ginger, grated
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp allspice powder
1 tsp horseradish sauce (no fresh unfortunately)
After 20 minutes I strained the mushrooms through a sieve. There were still some large chunks of mushroom so I used a wooden spoon to pass them through the sieve and despite putting in some serious effort I was still left with about two handfuls of mushrooms that refused to relent, so I gave up on these unruly fungi and chucked them on the compost heap.
The resulting dark brown liquid looked pretty decent so I added the other ingredients, brought it to the boil then left it to simmer.
After about 45 minutes of simmering it had gone really dry and congealed so I added some more water to get it back to the correct consistency.
I simmered it for an hour in total before sieving it once again to remove the whole spices. Again I pushed it through the sieve to make sure I got all the goodness out, I say goodness but by this time it smelt pretty bad and looked even worse.
I ended up with about 200ml of very dark brown ketchup which I put it in my lovely Orla Kiely pot to try and make it look more appealing.
Fortunately I was spared trying it straight away as the advice is to leave it to settle for 24 hours before using.
The days ticked by and I kidded myself I was putting off trying it due to a lack of decent accompaniment (mushroom ketchup is apparently traditionally eaten with poultry or steak) but really I was just scared it was going to be grim.
I grasped the nettle and cooked up some lovely steak, roast potatoes and green beans. I spooned a reasonable amount of ketchup onto each plate and served the resulting meal up to my delighted husband. Let’s just say he didn’t stay delighted for long …
Unfortunately the ketchup was just way too salty to be edible. The background flavour of the earthy mushroom and spices was good but the overwhelming flavour was bitter salt.
On looking up some modern recipes I think the key missing ingredient here is some vinegar and possibly some sugar. Were I to attempt this again I would certainly cut right back on the salt as it seems my modern tastes are not quite in line with my Victorian forebears.
I think I will attempt a non-food related task for my next How to …