soft penguins and mushrooms.



We thought they would never move. Even though Dad has been going on about living near the sea for the last twenty-five years and they both felt the small town they lived in for 35 years had sharpened into somewhere they hardly recognized, it seemed my parents would reluctantly stay put. Then they moved. It was family friend Joanna, a keen-eyed architect, who spotted the house while they were all on holiday nearby in Devon. A few days later I got a call in Rome telling me that they had put in an offer on a house in a village in West Dorset. Then it was us three kids proving the reluctant ones. ‘Were they sure they wanted to make this big move at this point in their lives?‘ ‘At which point was that‘ asked both parents before exchanging on the house.

Here I am two years later in Dad’s study in the new house looking through the window at Dad shifting things around the garden. It isn’t just a lovely house, but a house that feels lovely, and as much a home as the faithful one that was a family home for 35 years. Renovations are pretty much finished, except the kitchen, which feels a bit like camping, the floor marked with masking tape suggestions Joanna has told my parents to live with, trying out if you like, before making any final decisions. It is comfortable camping though, warmed by an AGA, home to the big table surrounded by the wicker backed chairs the grandkids are picking at in just the same way we used to, and a proper pantry. In the left hand corner sits the piano on which all three of us thrashed out arpeggios more than 25 years ago. Next to the piano sits a small temporary bookcase filled with Mum’s cookbooks.


To be honest – and this may seem odd for a person who has just written and photographed a cook book – I often find cook books a bit overwhelming. This is mostly because I insist on flicking through new ones at the breakneck speed in bookshops I haven’t given myself enough time to linger in, pictures and recipes slapping me round the face. My mum’s books though, many of which I have myself, are nothing but reassuring. Above sit the hardbacks, which don’t feel hard at all, Nigel Slater, Sophie Grigson, Ann and Franco Taruschio and the Silver Spoon, Below are the soft penguins and other paperbacks, which feel nice to hold. Books by Jane Grigson, Elizabeth David, Claudia Roden, Colin Spencer, Simon Hopkison and Joyce Molyneux their pages yellowed by time, their spines lined with wrinkles. These are books of good writing and good recipes that fall open into the splits at pages encrusted with specks of pastry, mincemeat and bread sauce. Most of the books have bookmark fringes, records of a time when supper was called a dinner party, years of kids teas, weekend lunches, meals celebrating, meals consoling.

We are all back for a week around New year along with our young kids and some of our friends too, which has meant the nicest sort of cooking: festive but functional. Tasty and accommodating food that pleases large groups, some of whom might roll up late. Food that will keep well enough if someone happens to need half an hour of breathing space before getting back stuck in. Jane Grigon has been consulted for braised beef, glazed ham, shepherds pie and mince pies, Elizabeth David for red cabbage, cod Portuguese and prunes in red wine, Nigel Slater for soup and biscuits, Josceline Dimbleby for herrings in soured cream (which we have made twice) and the AGA book for treacle tart. We have made Simon Hopkinson’s excellent Potato gratin and then today, from a book called Leaves from our Tuscan Kitchen by Janet Ross, Funghi alla casalinga.

Leaves from our Tuscan Kitchen is a book I don’t have in Rome, and won’t be allowed to borrow until I return the pudding book and fish book I borrowed for a few months four years ago. It is a charming book written by an English woman who lived in Tuscany in the late 1800’s and who noted down her recipes which were inspired by her Tuscan home. It was re-published by her great, great-nephew in the 1970’s. It is, I imagine, the kind of book that could be pulled by pieces by purists questioning authenticity, whatever the heck authentic means. I find the simple recipes – which are mostly for vegetables –  and engaging descriptions utterly appealing. Mum suggested we make a recipe she used to make a lot as a starter in the 1980’s, mushrooms cooked in a mixture of butter and olive oil, seasoned with anchovy and chopped mint and then sharpened with lemon juice.

It is a particular sounding recipe I know, but a plainly delicious one. The anchovy far from being fishy, acts as gutsy seasoning and, like all well-behaved seasonings, doesn’t dominate but simply coaxes the mushrooms into being, more, um, mushroomy. Mint, musty and warm, works surprisingly well, as does the lemon, which sharpens everything up nicely. We piled the mushrooms and their buttery juices on brown toast, even though my mum thought it would have been better served alongside crusty white bread for mopping up. I think these mushrooms would also be good with rare steak, piled on a baked potato or on top of some proper polenta.


Funghi alla casalinga – Mushrooms in butter with anchovy, mint and lemon.

Adapted from Leaves from our Tuscan Kitchen by Janet Ross

  • 1kg mushrooms
  • 100 g butter
  • 1 tbps olive oil.
  • salt and coarsely ground black pepper
  • 4 chopped anchovies
  • 2 sprigs of chopped mint.
  • juice of half a lemon.
  • a tablespoon of chopped parsley

If necessary wipe the mushrooms clean, then cup them into slices. In a wide frying pan, warm the butter and the oil and then fry the mushrooms gently until they are soft – which will take about 5 minutes.

Add a good pinch of salt, some freshly ground black pepper, the chopped anchovy and mint and continue cooking for another minute or so.

Add the lemon juice, stir and cook for another 30 seconds or so. Serve immediately.


Cheers and Happy New year to you all. The book is coming along in the most lovely and reassuring way thanks to the happy team I have the privilege to work with. This week I am back in London to collect second page proofs which I will then take back to Rome to look over. Publishing day is June 4th for the UK and then March 2016 for the US, which seems both near and far. Until then I look forward to writing here as much as I can. Thanks as always for reading along – R.


Filed under antipasti, books, mushrooms, Rachel's Diary, vegetables, winter recipes

48 responses to “soft penguins and mushrooms.

  1. Beautifully written Rachel, and I love with the connection with yourself and the Tuscan cookbook from the 1800’s. Happy New Year and I look forward to seeing your book as soon as it’s out. Jenny xx

  2. How did you sneak into my house and photograph my cookery book shelves? Or could it be that your mum and I have collected our books over a similar period? Janet Ross’ book looks a real and to me, unknown treat – though I’m looking forward to the cookery book publication of 2015 from a certain Brit living in Rome. Is there a date yet?

    • rachel

      Hello M (sorry for delay in answering I am still in post festive chaos). I love that we three share such similar books (which is because they are wonderful one). The date is June 4th in the UK so it is getting closer (I have second page proofs on my desk right now. Happy New Year to you xx

  3. Ah! Leaves from a Tuscan Kitchen – I think it’s fate that I didn’t discover this book until Christmas when Marco gave it to me (clever man, he gave me the ebook so that we don’t have to ship yet another cookbook in two months time, but I can’t love ebooks the way I love books so I do plan on buying the actual book once we’re settled back in!) and now it has been following me around in a series of fateful encounters. Anyway, I’m hooked! And now I’m also thinking I should take a look at A Castle in Tuscany, which is Sarah Benjamin’s biography of the fascinating Janet Ross. I’ll be cooking from this soon — these mushrooms sound divine. x

    • rachel

      When we have our weekend away, which we will, we are going to talk about this, and ED and, well, good writing about good food. I am going to look out for the bio, thanks x

  4. victoria2nyc

    This is one of your loveliest posts ever. I always read them through twice, once quickly in a greedy way, then again, slowly and lingeringly so I can enjoy all the luscious language – “gutsy seasoning; um, mushroomy; encourages the mushroom flavor.”

    I, too, am making a HUGE move sometime in the next six weeks. It has been planned for a long time and will be life-altering and wonderful.

    Happy New Year to you, your family, and all your readers! xoxo

    • rachel

      Oh thanks Vic, I am late replying so i am saying Happy new year everywhere. I feel v lucky to have you reading along. I really hope your big move goes well, please let me know, v v best Rach xox

  5. What a lovely post this is. Your folks’ home sounds like the perfect retreat, for them and for the rest of the family. I like the sound of that Tuscan book very much. Happy New Year to you and I am very much looking forward to settling down with your book in June.

    • rachel

      Hello K, Happy New Year to you all and hope everything is going well with you, your projects, the girls….. Back in Rome (and more importantly Luca is back at school – thank goodness) cheers to us all and having a good year – Rx

  6. Such a lovely post, Rachel. I always enjoy your writing so much. It looks as if you had a wonderful time back in England and I enjoyed following along on Instagram. Buon Anno and I am so very excited to order a copy of your cookbook once it comes out.

    • rachel

      Thank you so much Flavia and thank you for reading along, i feel very lucky to be in such a lovely community. Buon Anno to you too xx

  7. I loved hearing all about your mum’s cookbook library..the soft penguins and hardbacks which aren’t hard at all. For a moment I felt like i was sitting next to the piano with you, leafing through time-yellowed, dog-eared pages encrusted with mincemeat. I love how you bring us readers straight to where you are – your writing is almost the best example of “show, not tell” that I’ve ever read!

    Happy new year btw friend!

  8. What a lovely piece of writing! Your prose make me want to track down a copy of Leaves from a Tuscan Kitchen immediately and just spend hours soaking it in.

    Happy New Year!

  9. Love seeing other people’s bookcases and love the dip in the shelf here from the weight of books. I have many of the same ones but Janet Ross is new to me. A lovely read, as always, Rachel. Happy New Year x

    • rachel

      my mum, you and I all have very similar shelves I think (because they are such good books). I think we have said it elsewhere but Happy New Year to you both Rx

  10. There is a deep good feeling knowing your parents are living somewhere warm and safe with their books and plants. I would LOVE to have an AGA.. I do envy them that.. Happy New Year to you.. and yours.. c

    • rachel

      I would love an AGA (though It would barely fit in my kitchen. Happy Happy New Year to you Celilia and thank you for the lovely community you create xxxox

  11. though i am very glad to hear that you are not EATING the penguins.. c

  12. That mushroom recipe sounds divine and would go especially good over polenta which would be great for entertaining my high maintenance, gluten free, vegetarian, etc. friends here in California. Thanks!

  13. laura

    Exciting! This time I discovered that you had a new post thanks to Instagram! 🙂 I second victoria2nyc’s comment about your luscious language and about reading first greedily and then “savoringly”.
    I have had “Leaves from a Tuscan Kitchen” in my kitchen for years … it is a treasure – as your parents’ new home, kitchen and bookshelves appear to be. I was thrilled to be able to enlarge the photo that was on Instagram and figure out that the book alongside the postcards is D.H. Lawrence’s “The Lost Girl”.
    Have your book on order … can’t wait to put it up in my kitchen and be able to pull it out “on demand”.
    May your 2015 be as wonderful a treat for you as reading you is for us.

    • rachel

      I am bombarding you all everywhere.
      It is a treasure, an example of beauty and simplicity I now have my own copy, which is a bit worse for wear (second hand). I want to try some of her artichokes ideas next. May your 2015 be wonderful too, thank you for the sense of community and friendship you bring here: it is lovely xoxox

  14. Lovely Rachel. I Like a nice beefy anchovy and you’re right about how they work well as seasoning. Lovely pictures and the undoctored bookshelf and the brown plates remind me of my own mum. Hope to see you soon… X

  15. Hm, reading this (and looking at that pic), and looking at my old cookbooks, and being thoroughly confused in a bookshop the other day gets me thinking: what’s the best way to sort your cookbooks?

  16. Anna

    This delightful cook book can be purchased for 1 penny plus postage from or if you are in the UK for less at Awesome Books. The author Janet Ross led an interesting life and her biography by Sarah Benjamin, called A Castle in Tuscany is a fascinating read.

  17. Hi Rachel, I have just discovered you and read your blog about a fountain, and a minute of silence to do the maths, and stove alchemy.
    I am on your wave length. I cooked the mushroom recipe to give my husband for lunch, and they were delicious. We have so much mint growing in our vegie garden, and the two m’s have never met in my kitchen before. The Italian Meatballs are next on the menu. Thank you for enjoyable posts.
    I look forward to more of them.

    • rachel

      Hello There and thank you for reading along, it is lovely to have you here. Mint and anchovy was a new combination for me too, I found it impertinent and delicious and am keen to try it again. Happy New Year to you x

  18. Romany Gurner

    Looks delicious! Is that Ghislaine Barthod’s Chambolle you are drinking?

  19. Rachel, you aren’t just a lovely writer, but your writing feels lovely….xxo toni

  20. When the first pub date emerged, many months back, I cheered. Out loud, actually. And embarassingly. And nearly pounded out a nice note.

    But then, THEN, I saw that the US pub date was a full year later. And I cursed. And pouted. And grumped so much, I wasn’t fit to type a thing.

    Now, with a bit of time and mellowing (Molly’s being a bit like red wine, in the mellowing department), and with the flip of the calendar to 2015, I can rightly scream “SQUEEEE!!!!!!!!!”.

    And mean it.

    Mushrooms on toast are the best. With anchovies? Oh my. Heaven on a plate.


    • rachel

      Hi M, happy New Year, I need to come and catch up with you all. Meanwhile Mushrooms and anchovies are excellent, sort of outrageous really and so opinionated they need to good plain toast to queiten the whole thing down. Baci R

  21. I think I’ve just stumbled across this morning breakfast thanks!

  22. Nadia

    Lovely post. And so looking forward to buying your book when it’s out!

  23. I love finding old cookbooks and trying the recipes. It is interesting to see where modern recipes come from and go back to our roots to re-invent the old ideas, once again. Now I’m off to see if I can get a copy of the Tuscan cookbook!

    • rachel

      Me too. One the other hand I have just bought a cooking called cooking for one written in the 1950’s, which is hilarious, pure comedy really. Happy New Year to you x

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