Charcoal Burner (Russula cyanoxantha)
The genus Russula includes some very beautiful and interesting species, with brightly-coloured caps (the word Russula comes from the Latin russulus, meaning "reddish", and many Russulas are red). It is relatively east to identify a mushroom as a member of the genus Russula, although the individual species are quite difficult to distinguish. This task often requires microscopic characters, and subtle subjective distinctions, such as the difference between a mild to bitter and a mild to acrid flavour.
Russulas have a distinctive flesh consistency, which is also reflected in the appearance of the gills and stem, and normally makes them immediately recognizable. The gills are brittle except in a few cases, and cannot be bent parallel with the cap without breaking. These mushrooms are so brittle that they crumble when handled roughly. The spore colour varies from white to cream, or even orange.
Russula cyanoxantha, known as the Charcoal Burner, is a mushroom, distinguished from most other members of the Russula genus by the fact that its gills do not split, but are soft and flexible. It is one of the most common Russula in Europe and can be found from summer to autumn in deciduous woodland, where it grows in slightly acidic, but nutrient-rich soil. It is also found on the ground in Eucalypt forests in south eastern Australia. This edible mushroom was designated Mushroom of the Year in 1997 by the German Association of Mycology.
The cap of the Charcoal Burner is 4-15 cm wide, convex at first and later flattened and slightly depressed at the centre, smooth and a little sticky when wet. The cap can be very variable in colour; often greyish or purply-blue lilac it can be brown, purplish, or greenish grey to dark green, bu generally with blotches of green an often blotched with black and reddish purple. It has a solid firm white stem up to 10 cm in height and 1.5-2.5 cm in diameter. The spores are pure white. The gills are white and rather close and narrow and feel slightly greasy and strikingly soft and pliable when touched and do not break easily, as in other Russulas.
Mushroom hunters often carry a small crystal of iron salts around to rub on the stem of any Russula they find. The colour change can help to identify species. Many Russulas show a colour change somewhere between pink and apricot when rubbed. However, the stem flesh of the Charcoal Burner usually shows little change or sometimes turns slightly greenish with iron salts.
Caution is required when identifying Russulas for eating as Russula emetica, also known as The Sickener, can make you ill. Russula emetica has a bright red cap 3-10 cm wide, initially convex, then later flat, or depressed in the centre, and sticky, in which the cuticle peels 1/3-3/4 of the cap radius, a pure white cylindrical stem 4-10 cm long and 1-2 cm wide, white narrowly spaced gills, white spores, and a very acrid or peppery hot taste. Always spit it out if tasted since it is an emetic (it induces vomiting).
Despite the difficulty in positively identifying collected specimens, the possibility to spot the toxic species by their acrid taste makes the Charcoal Burner a popular edible mushrooms. It appears that no species of Russula is deadly poisonous and the mild-tasting ones are all edible. This rule applies ONLY to Russulas and not to other types of mushrooms!
Fricassee of Edible Russulas recipe
This can be served on its own as a first course or to accompany seared foie gras or grilled meats...mmm great taste !
- 150 g (5 oz.) smoked bacon
- 1 onion, thinly sliced
- 500 g (18 oz.) edible russulas, peeled, washed and cut into pieces
- 50 g (3 tbsp.) butter
- 100 ml (6 tbsp.) aged Burgundy or Bordeaux
- Seasonal herbs
- Salt and pepper
Sauté the diced bacon in a pan; add the onion and let brown slightly. Add 500 ml (2 cups) water. Add the mushrooms, salt, pepper and wine and cook, covered, until the liquid has completely reduced. Add a big piece of butter and the finely chopped herbs; brown and serve.