“I am in fact a Hobbit in all but size. I like gardens, trees, and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking; I like, and even dare to wear in these dull days, ornamental waistcoats. I am fond of mushrooms (out of a field); have a very simple sense of humor (which even my appreciative critics find tiresome); I go to bed late and get up late (when possible). I do not travel much.”
— J. R. R. Tolkien
I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love some aspect of Tolkien’s Hobbit characters, whether it’s their mischievous nature that gets them into so many scrapes, their generous hearts, their delight in turning any occasion into one of feasting and merriment, or the fact that they feel it should be quite normal to dine on at least seven meals each day, especially the obligatory afternoon tea. In addition to all of these, there is one thing about Hobbits that just makes me smile — their passion for mushrooms. Tolkien’s biographers trace this back to Ronald’s childhood in Hall Green, Birmingham, where he and his brother Hilary went foraging for wild mushrooms. In fact, there are stories of a farmer quite like Farmer Maggot who once chased young Ronald for picking mushrooms and was later dubbed “The Black Ogre” by the boys.
My own love of mushrooms was cultivated one September when Steve and I took our daughter Esther on a pilgrimage along the Canterbury Trail. We walked through fields along footpaths, much like the ones Tolkien and and his brother might have traversed in the countryside of their childhood. One day on our walk we came across an adorable little patch of mushrooms growing right inside the hollow of an old tree! We loved sampling the food at the various inns along the way, and one of my favorite discoveries was “The Full English” – a breakfast complete with fried or poached eggs, toast and jam, bacon and/or sausage, tea, and of course fried tomato slices. When we were near London, this was accompanied by beans in tomato sauce, quite like the canned Hunt’s variety. As we got closer to Canterbury and walked through Kent, these beans gave way to fried mushrooms. Now this was my kind of breakfast! I suddenly felt a new kinship for those Hobbit people.
When the weather begins to turn and I feel the brisk chill of September, it brings back memories of our pilgrimage and those hearty breakfasts on the trail. I begin to search the store for my favorite little button mushrooms to serve to Steve. Actually, I would be quite happy with this dish for dinner, all by itself. It stands nicely on its own, but can also be a lovely topping for steak or hamburgers. However, you might like to serve it Hobbit-style over a piece of hearty whole-grain toast and celebrate Bilbo’s birthday (September 22!) properly. My recipe assumes that you are buying your mushrooms at the grocery store; if you are adventurous enough to forage for wild ones, you must tell us how you do it by sending in a comment!
Enough for a couple of moderately hungry Hobbits
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 large or two small shallots
2 teaspoons butter
8 oz. package of small button mushrooms — you can use any kind that you like, but my favorites are a mixture of white and baby Bella mushrooms. I buy two packages, one of each kind, knowing it will be enough to make two breakfasts!
One handful of fresh herbs — I like a mixture of thyme, marjoram, and chives, but you can add basil, tarragon, or rosemary too.
Salt and pepper to taste
Optional additions — choose one teaspoon or so of one of these if you’d like to add another flavor:
Worcestershire Sauce, balsamic vinegar, or sherry
A tablespoon or two of Gruyere or cheddar cheese, finely grated on top as a garnish
- The secret to caramelizing the mushrooms, which gives them a nice toasty finish, is to make sure your mushrooms are dry first. I rinse them quickly in a colander and then pat them dry with a paper towel. You can also clean your mushrooms with a mushroom brush. (Yes, there is such a thing, and it was probably invented by a Hobbit!) Leave the smallest button mushrooms whole and slice the larger ones in half or thirds. I like them in about 1/2” thick pieces.
- Choose a heavy non-stick skillet that has a large enough surface area to make sure that the mushrooms are not piled too high. Cooking them in almost a single layer will allow them to become caramelized instead of stewed.
- Leave your mushrooms on the paper towel to dry a bit while you peel the shallots and slice them nice and thin. Chop the herbs you have chosen, leaving a few sprigs to garnish your finished dish.
- When all this is ready, add the 2 teaspoons of olive oil to your skillet and heat it to medium-high on the stovetop. Add the shallots and stir until they are slightly golden in color. They’ll finish cooking after you add the mushrooms.
- Add the 2 teaspoons of butter and let it get hot in the pan. Now add the mushrooms and the chopped herbs. Let them sit a bit, don’t be tempted to stir it too much! Let the mushrooms get toasty on one side and then gently turn them to the other side. This takes about 8 – 12 minutes, depending on how hot your pan is.
- When you think the mushrooms are toasted to your liking, they are ready to eat! If you wish, this is the time to add optional ingredients such as Worcestershire Sauce or balsamic vinegar. It’s better to add any liquid ingredients at the end of the cooking time so that you don’t disrupt the dry caramelization cooking process. If you’re adding in any of these liquid options, cook for about another minute and then remove the pan from the stove. Finally, add salt and pepper to taste.
- Garnish your dish of mushrooms with fresh herbs, and/or the finely grated cheese, if using. Serve hot as is, or over toast. Enjoy!
 Humphrey Carpenter, J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography; Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000
All the images featured in this post are courtesy of Steve Moon and used with his permission for Cultivating.
Terri Moon is a musician and a lover of Jesus. She delights in playing the music of Bach, growing English roses, baking up a good batch of scones, and all kinds of good, true, and beautiful things that point to Him. As a classically trained violinist, she has performed and taught students of all ages for over 40 years. She serves on the leadership team of the Anselm Society, and is still pursuing her lifelong passion of the intersection of music, worship, and spiritual formation. Terri’s dream is to bring to life the beauty of the Church’s heritage in the arts and is currently leading a church choir and attempting to learn to play the piano. She lives in Colorado Springs with her husband Steve and their dog, Chesterton.