In olden times, Greeks had a love of mushrooms of many kinds, supported by extensive knowledge, particularly among men and to some extent hunters and villagers. Rural populations considered mushrooms as ‘meat’ for the poor and relied on them when meat was unavailable. The term ‘meat’ may sound like an exaggeration, but mushrooms do indeed are excellent source of high quality minerals, vitamins and proteins which we expect to find in meat. Moreover, they have low sodium, very few calories and very pleasing taste. And finally, there is a king among them. Ydnon, the black truffle, which holds a special place in the luxury foods since the 5th century BC, was so highly esteemed that a non Athenian received the rights of citizenship in return for a dish of truffles.
Given that the importance of edible mushrooms in Ancient and Byzantine years was followed by high consumption, even very knowledgeable hunters of wild mushrooms could occasionally misidentify and consume toxic species. However, deaths from mushroom poisoning are rarely mentioned in contemporary literally sources. In contrast, emphasis is placed on cooking them correctly and on the antidotes in case of consuming poisonous mushrooms. It might seem funny now, but the list of ancient antidotes includes, among others, radish pulp, cabbage pulp and a drink made with honey, saltpetre and warm water. Of course, none of them has any life-saving effect.
Certain mushrooms are mentioned in the works of Hippocrates (5th cent. BC), Dioscorides (55 AD) and Galen (130 – 200 AD), showing that the ancients doctors were quite familiar with their therapeutic virtues. It is not surprising then, that they also interested in their cultivation.
Nicander of Colophon (2nd cent. BC), who was a poet, grammarian and author of two treatises on poisons, explains in his Georgics (fragment 79 Schneider, quoted by Athenaeus 2.61 a, tr. S. D. Olson) how edible mushrooms can be cultivated:
‘Whenever you bury the trunk of a fig tree deep in dung,
and keep it moist with constant streams of water, harmless mushrooms will grow on its lower parts. You may cut any of these that grow from the root and not from the ground.’
According to De materia medica, written by the Greek physician Dioscorides in the 1st century AD:
Some report that the bark of the white and of the black poplar, cut up into small pieces and strewn on garden-plots that were previously fertilized with manure, grows mushrooms in all seasons. (1.81 tr. L. Y. Beck)
In recent years, the consumption of wild mushrooms in Greece is much lower than in the past. Even if wild mushrooms are eaten traditionally in Epirus, West Macedonia (Grevena, Kastoria), Pelion and Crete, the high incidence of poisoning, perhaps because of the high level of past consumption, and the limited knowledge of younger people on wild species affected their demand. On contrary, there is a steady demand for cultivated mushrooms.
Mushroom and chestnut stew
(Stifado me manitaria kai kastana from Crete)
1 kg whole pearl onions, peeled
6 small cloves of garlic
1kg fresh mushrooms, cleaned and cut into 4-8 cm long pieces
20 chestnuts, peeled
10 kalamata olives
2/3 cup olive oil, divided
2 bay leaves
orange peel, to taste
1/4 tsp ground cloves
salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tb. tomato paste diluted in ¾ cup warm water
1/2 wine glass of red wine
Heat the half oil and sauté onions and garlic until soft. Add the mushrooms and cook for 4 minutes, stirring frequently.
Pour in the remaining oil and diluted tomato paste. Add wine, chestnuts, bay leaves, orange peel, cloves and pepper. Bring to the boil, stirring, taste and add salt. The liquid should not cover the ingredients but if needed add water.
Lower the heat, put the lid on and cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Uncover, add the olives and simmer for another 6-8 minutes to thicken the sauce.