food, history and art – some ruminations by Fredrika Jacobs

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It was impossible to miss the impressive display of mushrooms available in Bethesda, Maryland’s farmer’s market. Chanterelles, porcini, oyster, and more. Their abundance is right on cue. As Giacomo Castelvetro (1546-1616) noted, mushrooms “are most plentiful in autumn.” Therefore, it can come as no surprise that mushroom festival time is upon us! This coming weekend, Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, the self-proclaimed “Mushroom Capital of the World,” will honor its number one cash crop with a “Cute-as-a-button [Mushroom] baby photo contest, a carnival, race, “National Fried Mushroom Eating championship”, and a host of other activities.
funghi 1


At least two Italian municipalities will follow suit in the weeks to come:
Budoia, which is located at the base of the Dolomites mountain range in the Province of Pordenone, and Ravascletto, which is in the Province of Udine. Impressively, Budoia’s fair features some 400 types of funghi!

Giacomo Castelvetro’s list is far less remarkable. In his treatise The Fruit, Herbs, and Vegetables of Italy he names 8 types but also references “a huge variety… whose names do not come immediately to mind.”[1]
Among the named, are:

Field mushrooms – small, very white and “not a bit harmful.”

Ovali – egg-shaped. “Although considered some of the best, and quite good, it is better all the same to be on the safe side, and boil them” before consuming a bowl full.

Parasol mushrooms – eat only those that have “a ring in the middle of the stalk,” a true sign that they are safe for human consumption.

Boletus or porcini – “They are highly esteemed, whether eaten fresh or salted”.

Polmoneschi- although eatable, “we use them [when dried] in Italy to light the fire on winter nights.”

Roman mushrooms, which the local population refers to as ‘fongaruola.’ “Buried in a terracotta pot filled with the best garden soil and watered every morning, [a single one] will produce 15 or 20 mushrooms by the next morning.” In Rome “many fine lords and cardinals have pots of them on their windowsills.”

The care Castelvetro takes in noting a mushroom’s safety reflects a pervasive distrust of the fungus and the general interdiction against consuming raw vegetables. Accordingly, the eminent 15th century master cook Martino of Como supplied the readers of his cookbook with instructions for the proper method of cooking mushrooms. “Because they are poisonous by nature,” mushrooms should be well cleaned then boiled in water with 2-3 cloves of garlic plus some white bread. If, by error, one eats a raw mushroom there is always a pear. Pears, it seems, were valued as an antidote to the ill effects of poisonous mushrooms!
“Pyra sunt theriaca fungorum!” – Prosper Calanius, Traicté pour l’entrtenement de santé, 1533.[2]

Despite the generally negative assessment of mushrooms by 16th and 17th century physicians, there were more than a few who came to praise the fungus as an aphrodisiac. Aztec prostitutes reportedly kept them on hand for their clients.[3]
As for truffles – the pungent and costly tuber prized by chefs & gourmands the world over – King George IV of England (1762-1830) “so highly appreciated the aphrodisiac quality in truffles, that his Ministers at the courts of Turin, Naples, Florence, &ct., were specially instructed to forward by state messenger to the Royal kitchen any of those fungi that might be found superior in size, delicacy or flavor… it being a positive aphrodisiac which disposes men to be exacting and women complying.”[4]

I suggest we enjoy the season’s bounty!

1. Giacomo Castelvetro, The Fruit, Herbs & Vegetables of Italy (1614), trans. Gillian Riley (Totnes, Devon: Prospect Books, 2012), pages 99-103.
2. See Ken Albala, Eating Right in the Renaissance (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002), pages 254 and 259.
3. Jan G. R. Elferink, “Aphrodisiac Use in Pre-Columbian Aztec and Inca Cultures,” Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol. 9 (2002), 1-2.
4. John Davenport, Aphrodisiacs and Anti-Aphrodisiacs, circa 1869, as quoted inMiriam Hospodar, “Aphrodisiac Foods: Bringing Heaven to Earth,” Gastronomica, vol. 4 (2004), page 90.