Mushrooms praised since Ancient times
The English word mushroom derives from Old French mousseron, which derives from Latin mussirio, meaning moss.
Mushrooms grow in every latitude, and they thrive in humid regions.They have been of interest to human race ever since people began picking them.
There are plenty of evidence of an interest in mushrooms, both edible and poisonous. Poisonous mushrooms were used in hunting, fishing or for homicidal purposes. Many tribes had used the most dangerous plants in carefully calculated dosages for medications, or as hallucinatory or aphrodisiac drugs employed in certain religious practices.
Magic powers or psychedelic compounds
The ancient Egyptians and Romans greatly enjoyed mushrooms. Ancient Egyptians believed there was a special connection between mushrooms and gods. Wild mushrooms were the “sons of the gods”, sent to Earth by lightning. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs reveal that Pharaohs thought mushrooms were sacred herbs that you could consume to become immortal, and only the Pharaohs were allowed to eat them.
Many cultures have used hallucinatory mushrooms in their religious rites and ceremonies. These mushrooms, also known as Psilocybin or psychedelic mushrooms, are mushrooms that contain the psychedelic compounds psilocybin, psilocin and baeocystin. They are used mainly as an entheogen and recreational drug whose effects can include euphoria, altered thinking processes, closed and open-eye visuals, synesthesia, an altered sense of time and spiritual experiences. Over 100 species are classified in the genus Psilocybe.
Native American cultures like the Mayas and Aztecs had symbols, statues and paintings which show that they consumed psilocybin mushrooms, especially during religious rituals, as a way to communicate with deities. Other tribes originating in Central America such as the Nahua, Mazatec, Mixtec, and Zapotec were also using mushrooms for similar reasons. In classical times, people looked at mushrooms very respectfully, knowing they can be either a delicious food or a deadly poison. There was something mysterious about its appearance after the rains and storms in autumn. People in Middle Age, preoccupied with sorcery and witchcraft, concluded that mushrooms were magic.
The first mention of hallucinogenic mushrooms in European medicinal literature appeared in the London Medical and Physical Journal in 1799. A man had served Psilocybe semilanceata mushrooms that he had picked for breakfast in London’s Green Park to his family. The doctor who treated them later described how the youngest child “was attacked with fits of immoderate laughter, nor could the threats of his father or mother refrain him”.
Rich and pleasing taste
Mushrooms have been described as vegetable meat. Their pleasing taste makes them a popular flavoring. Moreover, they provide the organism with plenty of proteins and vitamins and mineral salts with very few calories – which certainly comes as a bonus!
No one knows the exact number of recorded mushroom species so far. Depending on the resources, you may find that numbers vary from 10,000 to 120,000. Even though the dangerous species may be distributed over a wider area than the edible ones, it would be good to be able to tell them apart if going mushroom picking. Because the color of a mushroom can vary throughout the day, it must be smelt, felt, broken open and examined. Sometimes, the most detailed descriptions in books, identification posters and color plates cannot give enough identification of an individual specimen. Only the extensive mycological knowledge of botanists is the reliable source.
As for the edible mushrooms available in supermarkets and farmers markets, most popular are button mushrooms, also known as Champignon de Paris, Cremini, Portobello, Porcini, Oyster, Shiitake, Morels, Hen of the woods, etc. Mushrooms are used in a variety of recipes: from soups, salads, creamy sauces to aromatic risottos, pasta and stews. Marinated, stuffed, grilled, fried or baked, their dense texture always adds richness to any meal.
Camporesi, Piero. The Magic Harvest: Food, Folklore and Society. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1998.
Katz, Solomon. Encyclopedia of Food and Culture. 3 vols. New York: Scribners, 2003.
Toussaint-Samat, Maguelonne. A History of Food. Chichester, West Sussex, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Print.