food, history and art – some ruminations by Fredrika Jacobs

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Delicate chanterelles, ruddy bright-capped russula, saffron milk cap lactarius deliciosus, and of course the wonderfully earthy boletus edulis, known to the French as cèpe, to the Germans as the Steinpliz, and to the Italians as funghi porcini. Mushrooms come in all sorts of shapes and colors – little white button caps, white-speckled red bulbs, orange-beige ruffled ribbons, blue and violet parasols… it’s amazing! There are about 750 species of genus russula, roughly 450 lactarius, and too many subspecies of the morchella genus to even count (in part because mycologists can’t agree on which funghi should be classed as such). Herein lies a problem. If mycologists are unsure about what counts as which type of fungus then what is the unlearned fungaiolo, or mushroom hunter, to do? This is not an idle question. [1] As tales of fungus intrigue make clear, eating mushrooms can be a risky business.

Writing in the first century Pliny the Elder duly noted that “among the things which it is rash to eat I would include mushrooms. Although they make for choice eating they have been brought into disrepute by a glaring instance of murder!”[2] Pliny, the first century cataloger of all natural thing who died in the miasmic air of Mt. Vesuvius in A.D. 79, was referring to the death of the Roman Emperor Claudius in October (prime mushroom hunting season) twenty-five years earlier. As Pliny – as well as Tacitus, Suetonius, Juvenal, and Josephus – tell the story, Claudius’s third wife, Agrippina the Younger, knew her mushrooms well. More to the point, she did not hesitate to use that knowledge to achieve a much-desired end. Like any doting mother, Agrippina wanted the best for her son, Nero (sired by Gn. Ahenobarbus). But that meant getting Claudius off the throne and putting Nero on it. Agrippina’s plan was simple and effective. One day between the sixth and seventh hour, Agrippina joined Claudius to enjoy the antics of a troupe of comic actors. As they watched, the imperial couple munched on mushrooms. With a show of affection and taking care with each selection, Agrippina alternately popped a delicate field mushroom first into the mouth of the portly Claudius and then into her own. Within hours, the Emperor was dead, Nero assumed the throne, and rumors went wild. Was the mushroom itself poisonous or simply the vehicle for the delivery of some other toxin? In either case, it is worth keeping in mind Pliny’s advice to those who feel compelled to indulge then do so only when snakes hibernate. Apparently, the delicacy of mushrooms makes them particularly susceptible to absorbing whatever is wafting in the air and this includes the poisonous “breath” of any serpent slithering past.[3]

Lactarius_deliciosus Barcelona market

buying mushrooms in Barcelona

The ill effects of ingesting the wrong sort of mushroom is by no means limited to antiquity.  According to Voltaire, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI suffered Claudius’s fate in October 1740.[4] Emperors were not alone in being fed toxic funghi. On multiple occasions the Madonna dell’ Arco, whose shrine is on the outskirts of Naples, was credited with saving the life of someone who mistakenly ate the wrong sort of mushroom. Take the case of “Giovanni Andrea and Rebecca di Martino, both having eaten poisonous mushrooms, were near death” when they prayed to the Madonna, who beneficently restored them to good health.[5] The many accounts of poisoning-by-mushroom may very well explain Alessandro Petronio’s denunciation of the mushroom as the “excrement” of the earth! In a chapter devoted to “fonghi” in Del viver delli Romani et di conserver la sanità, Petronio, who was the pope’s private physician, claimed mushrooms “suffocate” the breath, cause stupor, and trigger apoplexia, which, claimed Voltaire, is what felled Charles VI![6]


Buying mushrooms in Richmond, Virginia

With all of these dangers in mind, cooks and botanist composed lists of “safe” mushrooms and prescribed methods of preparation to ensure safety.[7] The eminent maestro Martino of Como instructed the readers of his cookbook, circa 1465, to first clean mushrooms then boil them in water seasoned with garlic and bread before frying![8] Bartolomeo Scappi offered more recipes in The Art and Craft of the Master Cook, 1570. To prepare a thick soup of salted mushrooms, soak the mushrooms for at least eight hours, changing the water repeatedly. Once the saltiness is gone, chop the mushrooms and sauté in olive oil flavored with spring onion, pepper, cinnamon, and saffron.[9] To be honest, it would be a lot easier to simply pair mushrooms with a hearty serving of pears. For well over a millennium, pears were considered a natural antidote to fungus toxins. Hence, “Pyra sunt theriaca fungorum!”[10]

Jean-Jacques Paulet, Treatise on mushrooms

But historical assessments of mushrooms are not all couched in warnings and disparagements. Aztec prostitutes reportedly kept mushrooms on hand for their clients.[11] An explanation for this practice may be found in a directive King George IV (1762-1830) issued to his ministers in foreign courts. It concerns the most prized of funghi, the truffle. George’s ministers in Turin, Naples, and Florence were “instructed to forward by state messenger to the Royal kitchen any of those funghi that might be found superior in size, delicacy or flavor… it being a positive aphrodisiac which disposes men to be exacting and women complying.”[12]

Given this wondrous – and decidedly checkered history – it is not at all surprising that Alice stumbled upon mushrooms in Wonderland. Having grown quite small – a mere three inches in height, Alice encounters the Caterpillar lounging atop a mushroom. As he puffs his hookah he quizzes her. “What size do you want to be?” asks the Caterpillar. A bit bigger would be nice, Alice responds. And with that “the Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth and yawned once or twice, and shook itself. Then it got down off the mushroom, and crawled away in the grass, merely remarking as it went ‘One side will make you grow taller, and the other side will make you grow shorter.’ ‘One side of WHAT? The other side of WHAT?’ thought Alice. ‘Of the mushroom said the Caterpillar… and in another moment it was out of sight.”[13]



… and here’s a lovely recipe from Angie’s Southern Kitchen:

Wild Mushroom Tart

Pie Crust click here for pie crust recipe


1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter ~ additional to butter pans
2 medium shallots finely chopped
1 garlic clove minced
1/2 pound Cremini mushroom thinly sliced
1 pound assorted wild mushrooms thinly sliced ~ I used shiitake, oyster + more creminis
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1 teaspoon salt
fresh ground pepper
1/4 cup mascarpone cheese at room temperature
1/4 cup whole milk
2 large eggs
1/2 cup grated fontina cheese
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 375. I made my crust and put it in the tart shell pans with removable bottoms. The size shown is a 6 inch tart pan and it made 4 of them. I buttered them really well. After I had the pie crust in the shell, I placed all on a baking sheet. Then made the filling. I saute my shallots in the oil and butter until tender. Then added the garlic for just a second then mushrooms and thyme. I saute mushrooms until almost all moisture was gone. I let the mushrooms cool and then added them to a bowl. Then add the remaining ingredients to the bowl the salt, pepper, mascarpone cheese, milk, eggs, fontina and parmesan cheeses. Once this is mixed well add it to the prepared pie shells. Do not over fill. I baked mine for 20 minutes and they came out nice and golden brown and the crust was wonderful nice and crunchy on the bottom. We all love it! Great recipe….I just love it when I find a good one!! Thanks Smitten Kitchen!


And for good measure: my lobster raviolo topped with truffle



[1] Of course, one can always turn to A.M.I.N.T. (Associazione Micologica Italiana Naturalistica Telematica), which catalogues about 1,200 types of mushrooms.   http://www.amint.it/ You will need to register and pay a nominal fee.

[2] Pliny, Natural History, book 22, chapter 46, 92-93. Also see V.J. Marmion, “The Death of Claudius,” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine (May 2002),, vol. 9 (5), 260-261.


[3] Pliny, Natural History, book 22, chapter 48, 100.

[4] “Charles the Sixth died, in the month of October, 1740, of an indigestion, occasioned by eating champignons, which brought on an apoplexy, and this plate of champignons changed the destiny of Europe.” Voltaire, Memoirs of the Life of Voltaire (London: G. Robinson, 1784), pages 48–49.

[5] Michele Miele, Le origini della Madonna dell’ Arco. Il “Compendio dell’historia, miracoli e gratie” di Arcangelo Domenici (1608) (Naples-Bari: Editrice Domenicana Italiana, 1995), page 175, miracle no. #126.

[6] Alessandro Petronio, Del viver delli Romani et di conserver la sanità [1581], trans. M. Basilio Paravicino (Rome: Domenico Basa, 1592), 136. Apoplexy is difficult to define during that period but seems related to stroke.

[7] In his treatise The Fruit, Herbs, and Vegetables of Italy, Giacomo Castelvetro (1546-1616) names 8 types off edible mushrooms but also references “a huge variety… whose names do not come immediately to mind.”
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- in addition to eating them, “we use them [when dried] in Italy to light the fire on winter nights.”

Roman mushrooms, which the local population refers to as ‘fongaruola,’ are “buried in a terracotta pot filled with the best garden soil and watered every morning.” The yield is impressive. A single pot “will produce 15 or 20 mushrooms by the next morning.” In Rome “many fine lords and cardinals have pots of them on their windowsills.” See Giacomo Castelvetro, The Fruit, Herbs & Vegetables of Italy (1614), trans. Gillian Riley (Totnes, Devon: Prospect Books, 2012), pages 99-103.

[8] Martino of Como, The Art of Cooking. The First Modern Cookery Book, ed. Luigi Ballarini, trans. Jeremy Parzen (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005), page 68.

[9] Terence Scully, trans., The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi (1570). L’arte et prudenza d’un maestro cuoco (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), page 362, recipe no. #235.

[10] Ken Alba, Eating Right in the Renaissance (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002), page 254 and 259. The quote Pyra sunt theriaca fungorum comes from Prosper Calanius, Traicté pour l’entrenement de santé, 1533.

[11] . Jan G. R. Elferink, “Aphrodisiac Use in Pre-Columbian Aztec and Inca Cultures,” Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol. 9 (2002), 1-2.

[12] John Davenport, Aphrodisiacs and Anti-Aphrodisiacs, circa 1869, as quoted inMiriam Hospodar, “Aphrodisiac Foods: Bringing Heaven to Earth,” Gastronomica, vol. 4 (2004), page 90.

[13] Excerpt from the 5th chapter, “Advice from a Caterpillar,” of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, 1865.

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The Oxford Companion to Italian Food begins the entry on garlic with a truth. This liliaceous plant with its pungent bulb has played quite “an ambivalent role in Italian gastronomy.”[1] Perhaps that’s to be expected from something that, says Wikipedia, propagates asexually and produces hermaphrodite flowers! Propagation aside, garlic’s ambivalence is its magic. As any cook knows, it has a remarkable capacity to assume, as stated in The Oxford Companion, “many personalities – raw and crude, it has an aggressive bite which disappears when lightly cooked in oil, or simmered in stews, when it becomes sweet and mild. Crushed with salt… it gives pungency to sauces…, it can be mild and nutty when pickled,” and it is lively in a salad! But that’s only a part of the magic.


The “many personalities” garlic assumes in kitchen pots and on dining tables is more than matched by a long and often ambivalent history in which it is celebrated for its curative powers and condemned as injurious, the source for all sorts of ills.


The magic – and magical potency – of garlic was recognized, it seems, from the moment of its emergence into European culture. In his encyclopedic Natural History (XIX. 101), Pliny the Elder (died 79 CE) noted that “whenever they take an oath, the Egyptians swear by garlic and onions as though they were gods.” Why garlic and onions were granted this honor rather than, say, saffron, is not disclosed. In any event, the ancient Egyptians seem to have held garlic in high repute, for it made its way into Tutankhamen’s tomb. Garlic, fit for a pharaoh, was also valued as a food especially appropriate for galley slaves, soldiers, and those performing heavy labor.[2] It was a marvel. In fact, Pliny devotes an entire chapter (book 29, chapter 34) to garlic. Among it’s more amazing feats is the job it does in crop fields, protecting newly sown seeds “from the remorseless ravages of the birds.” All you need to do is boil the garlic and scatter it about. Birds will be become “stupefied” by it and drop to the ground like a stone… but only momentarily so. Industrious farmers will have just enough time to gather and remove these dazed birds before they come round! Could this ability to ward off threats have inspired Bram Stoker to choose garlic as an effective vampire-repellant in Dracula, 1897? Perhaps. It certainly seems to speak to a belief in its ability to keep the unwanted away. Between a top-floor apartment I once rented  in Rome and the ground floor was an obstacle of an impressive pile of garlic and onions. The old woman who created this smelly mélange believed it kept the black cats that roamed the neighborhood away from her door! I think it did. I never saw a cat within a block of the building!

But back to garlic’s medicinal history.


Garlic made it into the most renowned medieval texts devoted to women’s health. It is referenced in the Physica of Hildegard of Bingen, who was Abbess of Rupertsberg, (1098-1179) and the Trotula, a 12th century collection of three books.  The latter reflects the practices advocated by a group of physicians in southern Italy who knew the practices advocated in classical texts and were also fluent with the progressive ideas of Arabic medicine. Hildegard recommended eating garlic raw but in moderation “lest a person’s blood becomes too hot.”[3] Trotula, described as a “wise woman from Salerno” in a letter dated 1059, includes garlic in list of “hot” foods that can help women suffering from a “paucity of menses.” And, again because of its heat, she considers it bad for wet nurses. A variation on the theme of garlic’s heat and consequential benefits is found in a passing remark by the Sephardic Jewish scholar Maimonides (1135-1204). In deciding which ordinances of Abraham Ibn Ezra to include in the Mishnah, he opted to omit one cited in the Babylonia Talmud (BT 82a). Although eating garlic on Sabbath eve had been a “custom” because it “aided” the production of semen, he apparently felt it necessary to prescribe the practice.[4]

More generally, Trotula prescribed garlic as a component in a recipe for benedicta, “so-called because of all the things from which it is comprised [including wild garlic], it is blessed.” In this concoction of spikenard, roses, ginger, saffron, poppy, pepper, and other things, garlic is something of a miracle ingredient, good against gout and for problems with the kidneys.[5]

These uses continued in the centuries to come as still others were added. In the 16th century, Pietro Mattioli of Siena prescribed garlic for digestive disorders and, interestingly, as helpful to women enduring difficulty in childbirth. In Dyets Dry Dinner (London, 1599) Henry Buttes acknowledged “Garlicke” to be “of most special use for Sea-faring men: a most excellent preservative against infection proceeding from the nasty savor of pump or sinck, and of tainted meates which Mariners are faine to eate for fault of better.”[6] Baldassare Pisanelli had made a similar observation three years earlier in Trattato della natura de’ cibi e del bere (Rome, 1583).

But what was prescribed for sailors was proscribed for landlubbers suffering from gout, or so suggested Christophorus Ballista in his poem “The Overthrow of the Gout,” which is known only through a 1577 edition in the British Library. The relevant passage reads as follows:

“All Salt and slimy meats, and flesh

that long doth powdered lye,

And fish in Salt preserved: all such

I warn thee to flee.

Both Garlick, Rue and Onions sour

expel them far from thee,

Although the fond Egyptians do

suppose them Gods to be.”[7]

The list of health benefits derived from garlic has continued to grow. According to a study published in the British Medical Journal on August 17, 1991, it has positive effects on “coagulation, platelet aggregation, and serum lipid concentrations.”

But garlic has not always been the magical cure all. Attitudes have been ambivalent. The Summoner in Geoffrey Chaucer’s (1343-1400) Canterbury Tales makes the point.

Canterbury_Tales 1483

Described in the book’s “General Prologue” as physically repulsive and morally reprehensible, the red-faced, heavy-lidded, and pustule-covered Summoner is a lover of “garleek,” onions, leeks, and red wine. At least one commentator has linked the Summoner’s appearance and tastes to the Bible, specifically Numbers 11:5.[8] It is here that the Hebrews complain about having only manna to eat and lament the absence of cucumbers, leeks, onions, and garlic from their diet. Since the time of St. Gregory (circa 540-604), commentators have read the Old Testament passage allegorically. Our experience of the world, including its delights, cause us to cry. The Liber de Mortalitatibus was less poetic and far more harsh. Garlic was equated with the stench of evil, blamed for ulcerating the body, said to weaken the vision, and disparaged for the general frenzy it caused. No wonder Samuel Johnson defined a “Garlickeater” as “a mean fellow”!

Ribera, Allegory_of_Smell, 1615-6

And so to the end… although Shakespeare in A midsummer night’s dream (act iv, scene iii) has ‘Bottom’ advise his acting troupe to “eat no onions or garlic, for we are to utter sweet breath” and thus be applauded for a sweet comedy, I say bring it on and to this delectable end I give you an Epicurious recipe for garlic soup.


Garlic soup



  • 26 garlic cloves (unpeeled)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil


  • 2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) butter
  • 2 1/4 cups sliced onions
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
  • 18 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 3 1/2 cups chicken stock or canned low-salt chicken broth
  • 1/2 cup whipping cream


  • 1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese (about 2 ounces)
  • 4 lemon wedges
  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Place 26 garlic cloves in small glass baking dish. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper; toss to coat. Cover baking dish tightly with foil and bake until garlic is golden brown and tender, about 45 minutes. Cool. Squeeze garlic between fingertips to release cloves. Transfer cloves to small bowl.
  2. Melt butter in heavy large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onions and thyme and cook until onions are translucent, about 6 minutes. Add roasted garlic and 18 raw garlic cloves and cook 3 minutes. Add chicken stock; cover and simmer until garlic is very tender, about 20 minutes. Working in batches, purée soup in blender until smooth. Return soup to saucepan; add cream and bring to simmer. Season with salt and pepper. (Can be prepared 1 day ahead. Cover and refrigerate. Rewarm over medium heat, stirring occasionally.)
  3. Divide grated cheese among 4 bowls and ladle soup over. Squeeze juice of 1 lemon wedge into each bowl and serve.



** In the spirit of Renaissance cuisine, I add the following just because!!

In The Art and Craft of a Master Cook, 1570, Bartolomeo Scappi, who many consider to be the most renown Italian chef of the period, used garlic in his recipe for braising a suckling calf’s head (“with its hair off and the head clean”) cleaved in half! First parboil the garlic then add it to the following: cinnamon, pepper, cloves, saffron, diced prosciutto, and muscatel raisins. Braise! Scappi also added garlic to a recipe for fricassee of a breast of suckling veal, crushing it with sweet fennel, salt, pepper, cloves, and cinnamon. As for the eminent Maestro Martino of Como, in Libro de Arte Coquinaria (The Art of Cooking), ca. 1465, he advises its “generous” use in the roasting of kid.

Go for it!



[1] Gillian Riley, The Oxford Companion to Italian Food (OPxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pages 226-27.

[2] Patrick Faas, Around the Roman Table. Food and Feasting in Ancient Rome (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), page 216. This might be related to its medicinal value. Of the 800 herbal remedies in the Codex Ebers, an Egyptian medical papyrus of around 1550 BCE, twenty-two contain garlic.

[3] Hildegard von Bingen’s PHYSICA, The Complete English Translation of her Classic Work on Health and Healing, trans. Priscilla Throop (Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 1998), page 45 (chapter LXXIX is devoted to Garlic). If garlic causes stomach pain, she suggests parsley as an antidote.

[4] The reference to the ordinance is in Maimonides, Commentary on the Mishna, Nedarim 8:4. See, Maimonides, Herbert Davidson, Moses Maimonides: The Man and His Work (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), page 224, note 152.

[5] The Trotula: An English Translation of the Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine, trans. Monica H. Green (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 2001), page 126.

[6] Ken Albala, Eating Right in the Renaissance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), page 203.

[7] Robert M. Schuler, ed., “Three Renaissance Scientific Poems,” Studies in Philology, vol. 75 (1978), page 90. The lines quoted are 267-270. I have altered the spelling in the original text to make it more accessible. Christophorus Ballista is the Latinized name of Christophe Arbaleste, a French monk and physician who left the Catholic Church at the beginning of the Reformation and went to live in Strasbourg. There, he became acquainted with Martin Bucer and other religious reformers. He is known to have treated the Bishop of Sion for gout.

[8] Robert Earl Kaske, Medieval Christian Literary Imagery (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989); Stephen Henry Rigby, Chaucer in Context: Society, Allegory and Gender (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997), page 87ff for a discussion of Canterbury Tales, I. 634.