1. Mushroom Lore
The Fellowship of the Ring, I 5, A Conspiracy Unmasked.
Somewhere in Eregion, early January, 3019, Third Age.
Gandalf sat up, picked a dry twig from the ground, and leaned closer to the fire. He lighted his pipe and, after the first couple of puffs, his drawn and weary face relaxed a little. Still, as he rested his back against a holly tree, the Grey Pilgrim raised eyes filled with concern to the vast shadow at the eastern skies: Caradhras.
A frown clouded his wrinkled - and yet ageless - face. Soon they would reach Dimrill Dale, but something in his mind kept whispering a warning: Do you really expect the Redhorn Pass to lie unwatched? Gandalf hoped they could avoid the mountain – its snowy trails and lashing winds would be hard on the Hobbits, unaccustomed as they were to such climates. As for Moria… Gandalf shut his eyes, willing away the images of shadow and death that rushed through his mind. Grim visions haunted him every time he thought of that place. He would rather avoid the evil that lurked there, unless all other paths stood closed for the passing of the Fellowship.
The hoot of an owl from the branches above pulled Gandalf out of his grim thoughts. His gaze traveled around the campfire, to each of his companions. The Elf sat on the ground, his long fingers caressing the spears of grass around him, feeling the earth and listening to the voices of the trees. In a soft, colorful voice, Legolas hummed an elven song, one unfamiliar to Gandalf. Yet, somehow, its tune fitted perfectly in that land and time, blending with the distant sounds of the night creatures and the whispers of the breeze among the leaves.
Not far from the Elf, the Dwarf sat on a stone, busy with sharpening his axe. The whetstone danced on the axe’s edge as Gimli’s hands moved with unexpected grace. Slowly, carefully, the Dwarf sang his own song - a different song, one of rock and metal, of flint and fire, and old beyond any mortal recollection.
The two Men were not there – they had left some time ago to secure the perimeter and search for game. Merry and Pippin were absent as well, as Gandalf noticed and frowned. Eru knew what kind of mischief was in those two Hobbits’ minds this time. Frodo, however, lay on the ground across the clearing, with his fingers playing with the grass and his face turned to the darkening skies above. Gandalf saw no shadow in his face – only the lingering light of Rivendell. What does he think of, I wonder? The darkness that lies ahead, or the slow, lazy afternoons of Bag End, in the warm rooms that smelled of cinnamon and milk? In his heart, the Grey Pilgrim hoped it to be the latter.
Not far from Frodo, Sam stood by Bill the Pony and gently stroked the horse’s back. With slow, loving moves, Sam groomed Bill, carefully removing thorns, weeds and dirt from his fur. Gandalf couldn’t help but smile when Sam glanced sideways before reaching into his pockets to take out a couple of small wild apples. The fruits were still green and probably sour to taste, but to Bill they were surely a delicacy – and, by the way Sam looked around, Merry and Pippin would probably think the same.
Not long after, the two men returned. Aragorn had two slain quails in hand, which he began to pluck as soon as he sat down by the fire. In no time, the two birds were roasting over the fire, filling the air with a mouth-watering scent.
Gandalf’s head jerked upward at the sound of someone approaching, with all his senses in sudden alarm. A heartbeat later he relaxed – no decent foe would make so much noise approaching the camp, unlike the two Hobbits that stepped into the clearing, talking loudly.
“Success!” declared Merry, clutching something tightly on his chest.
“Triumph!” added Pippin, childish excitement coloring his voice.
Gandalf raised his eyebrows. What had they done this time?
“We found mushrooms,” explained Merry, and raised his crumpled vest, now filled with mushrooms as a make-shift cloth sack, similar to the one Pippin clutched on his chest. Two fat mushrooms fell from the sides and rolled towards the fire, but their journey ended at Boromir’s boot.
The Steward’s son picked them up, sniffed them and wiped them on his shirt. “Good,” he mumbled. “At last, something other than poultry for dinner.” Ignoring the Ranger’s slight frown, Boromir reached out to the nearby bushes, as if searching for something. “Roasted mushrooms! It’s a while since I’ve tasted such a treat.” He cut a stick from the bush, cleared it of leaves and turned around. Only then did Boromir notice the shocked expression on the four Hobbits’ faces. He stared at Aragorn, who seemed busy with turning the quails over the fire. Gimli just shrugged, but Gandalf stared right at him. “What?”
The answer came from Sam. “You do not simply ‘roast’ mushrooms, Master Boromir,” he said. “You rub them with salt and garlic and fry them, with chopped onions, in fresh butter, over low heat.” Merry and Pippin nodded in unison and Sam licked his lips, as if he already tasted the dish. He rushed to his backpack, mumbling. “Where have I put that pan?”
“Fried?” Boromir leaned back and tossed the two mushrooms to Merry, who caught them in mid air. “I don’t mind trying fried mushrooms for a change,” he said. “But you should definitely try roasting them some time.” His gaze turned to the dancing flames. “When we were younger, my brother and I used to go stealing mushrooms from the greenswards of the Houses of Healing,” Boromir said, his voice calm and distant. “The herb master keeps a small garden of medicinal plants there. He always became furious when he discovered our theft. Now I believe that his anger came from concern over our health, for he grew poisonous mushrooms alongside the edible ones.” A sad smile curled the corners of his mouth. “Neither of us ever suffered from eating them – Faramir, always the knowledgeable one, could tell them apart. We would roast them at the fireplace late at night, snickering and hiding from the servants. I still remember how delicious they tasted – perhaps our mischief added something to their flavour?”
Boromir raised his gaze from the fire to his companions. The Hobbits eyed him differently now, as Gandalf saw, pleased. Around the campfire, over a batch of mushrooms ready for the pan, Man and Hobbits had come to an understanding. The Grey Pilgrim puffed his pipe in silence, curious to see what other wonders that night had for them.
Merry looked at his hand and the two mushrooms Boromir had tossed at him. “Well… I suppose we could roast some of them.” He turned to Pippin. “What do you think?”
Pippin sat down between Merry and Gimli, put his load of mushrooms on the ground before him and reached in his sack for his pipe. “Why not? I don’t mind trying recipes from other lands every now and then,” he replied. “After all, it’s mushrooms we’re talking about; they will be delicious anyway.” He pierced a couple from his lot with a stick and placed them over the fire.
“Why not, indeed?” replied Sam, who grabbed Merry’s mushrooms, took out his knife and began to slice them one by one. “I don’t have butter, but I think they’ll fry nicely in oil.”
“Back home,” said Gimli between puffs of smoke, “we cook them in oil all the time.”
The Hobbits looked at him with renewed interest. Even Sam, busy with preparing the mushrooms for the pan, glanced at the Dwarf with curiosity written upon his face.
“I recall a certain meal my mother used to make on several occasions,” continued Gimli. “When my father brought back from the hunt a wild boar or two, she would bake the meat over coals from cedars and pines, with wild mushrooms, scallions, and strong red wine. The mushrooms would soak in the wine, which, combined with the juices from the meat, made them so tender they melted in your mouth.” Gimli sighed. “It was a meal fit for kings, I tell you.” He reached out and picked up one of the mushrooms before Pippin’s feet. “Ours were not as big as this one, though. They were smaller and their cups were of a darker shade – but, by Smaug’s backbone, did they taste good!”
Pippin stared at the Dwarf for a long time. Then he turned to Aragorn with a hungry look on his face. “Any chance of having boar for dinner any time soon, Strider?”
Aragorn just smiled and poked the burning logs.
“Bilbo liked his mushrooms with eggs and hard cheese, with bacon at the side,” said Frodo. “Do they eat mushrooms at Rivendell, Strider? I don’t remember eating any during our stay there.”
“Oh, but you did,” replied Gandalf, finally breaking his silence. “Do you not remember the hearty soup you were served during the first days of your recovery?”
Frodo seemed taken aback. “It was a mushroom soup?”
Gandalf nodded, smiling.
Frodo closed his eyes, as if trying to bring back the taste. “You don’t suppose that Lord Elrond would consider sharing the recipe, Strider?”
Aragorn grinned. “I really cannot tell, Frodo,” he replied. “But I doubt that, even if he did, the flavour would be the same in Hobbiton as in Rivendell.” His voice became distant, as a shadow of longing passed over his face. “In Imladris, all things have a different taste – a taste sweet and sour, like all the things we yearn for and still remain beyond our reach.”
In the silence that followed Aragorn’s words, only the sound of the oil sizzling in Sam’s frying pan and the crackling of the burning logs echoed in the clearing. Then the aroma of the frying mushrooms filled the air, and everyone’s faces perked up.
It was the Elf who broke the silence this time. “There are no mushrooms in the forests of my homeland,” said Legolas, his voice low. “Not of the edible kind, at least. Those that grow in the murky shadows of Mirkwood, amongst poison and decay, have twisted caps of strange colours. Gür-carab my people call them: death-hats, for their flesh means death to the fool who tastes them, more venomous than the bite of the spiders, and the agony they inflict is fitting to the Shadow they grow under.” A cloud passed over his fair face, only to be lifted a heartbeat later. “I say that your cooking certainly smells wonderful, Master Samwise!”
Sam’s face seemed to acquire a deep red shade – but who could really tell, with him leaning over the fire, stirring the mushrooms inside the pan?
Aragorn pulled the roasting quails from the fire and placed them on a plate before him. “The people of Harad and Umbar have a liking for mushrooms as well,” he said, as he began to cut the two birds in pieces. “I seem to recall several dishes that included them. But the kind that grows around the river Harnen is smaller than this kind, and lighter – almost yellow. They leave a spicy aftertaste that lingers on for hours. The tribes of the southern deserts travel many miles to gather or trade for these mushrooms – or so I’ve heard.” Aragorn divided the quail pieces to individual plates and handed the first one to Boromir beside him.
“You have been to the South?”
Aragorn did not answer Boromir’s inquiry; he just passed two more plates to Legolas and Gimli, while Sam pulled the pan from the fire and proceeded to serve each of his companions with a portion.
“Elladan once told me,” said Legolas, leading the discussion to a different path, “that even orcs favour mushrooms.”
The Hobbits looked shocked.
“Surely, he must be mistaken,” said Boromir, and took a bite from the meat.
Legolas shook his head. “I do not think so. He once told me that many times, after he and Elrohir had wiped out orc patrols, they came across meal leftovers in their camps: some kind of stew, consisting of unidentified meat, roots, bulbs, and mushrooms.”
“I wonder where their meat came from,” said Boromir in a low, casual voice, while mischief danced in his eyes.
Not during dinner! Gandalf never voiced his thought, but Boromir saw the warning in the Wizard’s sharp glance and did not pursue the issue further.
That moment of tension ended when Pippin took the roasting mushrooms from the fire, blew on them to cool them down and carefully took a bite. His face lit up. “Master Boromir, these are really good!”
“I told you so,” mumbled Boromir.
Frodo approached Gandalf with a filled plate in his hands. “Gandalf,” he said, “do you think that mushrooms grow in Valinor as well?”
“I believe so, lad,” the Wizard replied and took the plate from the Hobbit’s hands. If there aren’t, he thought, tasting Sam’s fried mushrooms, eternity will be tasteless and very, very boring.
Inspiration for this story came from the fact that I’m on a diet. I hope the good Professor won’t be offended.
The idea for the term Gür-carab: death-hats, regarding the Mirkwood poisonous mushrooms, comes from Marta.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.