The History of Mushrooms
One thing that I often wonder is how long have mushrooms been consumed by the human race? Food historians can tell us that prehistoric people most likely consumed mushrooms, both poisonous and edible. Let’s take a little trip back in time to discover the history and origins of the wonderful and delectable mushroom.
"Mushrooms and other large varieties of fungus have been eaten since earliest times, as traces of puffballs in the prehistoric lake dwellings of Switzerland, Germany, and Austria show; but not by everyone and not everywhere. The rarest and finest mushrooms, such as the truffle and the oronge, were highly esteemed in classical Greece and Rome, and have always been expensive...some mushrooms have been successfully cultivated for a long time. In classical times both Greeks and Romans grew the small Agrocybe aegerita...on slices of a poplar trunk. The Chinese and Japanese may have been growing shiitake on rotting logs for even longer. Modern European cultivation goes back to 1600, when the French agriculturist Olivier de Serres suggested a method in his work Le Theatre d'agriculture des champs. In 1678 another Frenchman, the botanist Merchant, demonstrated to the Academie des Sciences how mushrooms could be grown in a controlled way by transplanting their mycelia (filaments which spread through the soil underneath them like fine roots)."
---Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson [Oxford University Press: Oxford] 1999 (p. 519, 521)[NOTE: This book contains separate entries for specific types of mushrooms...shiitake, enokitake, truffles, etc. If you need these details ask your librarian to help you find a copy of the book.]
"Cave drawings and paintings tell us hardly anything about the plants the cave dwellers ate, and it is even rarer to find them showing mushrooms, which does not mean that the latter never featured on prehistoric menus. Residues identified prove that other vegetables were in fact eaten, even if few felt any urge to depict them on cave walls. Morever, if we look at the dietary customs of contemporary peoples who are still at the Paleolithic or Neolithic stage of development, there is plenty of evidence of an interest in mushrooms both edible and poisonous. The latter can be used for hunting, fishing, or indeed for homicial purposes...The ancient Egyptians and Romans greatly enjoyed mushrooms...The Bible, although full of references to food of many kinds, never mentions mushrooms, either in praise or otherwise..."
---History of Food, Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, tranlated by Anthea Bell [Barnes & Noble Books: New York] 1992 (p. 57) [NOTE: This book contains much more information on mushrooms than can be paraphrased here.]
"The first evidence that mushrooms were used as human food in prehistoric Europe is the recent find of a bowl of field mushrooms in a Bronze Age house near Nola in Italy. Mushrooms were gathered from the wild. Classical Greek authors tend to treat them as famine food, on the level with acorns. By Romans, however, they were so highly regarded that the Stroic writer Seneca gave up mushrooms (boleti) as unnecessary luxuries---an approach to the vegetarianism and asceticism that he toyed with. Recipes are suggested by Diphilus of Siphnos, in the third century BC, and in Apicius in the fourth century AD."
---Food in the Ancient World from A to Z, Andrew Dalby [Routledge:London] 2003 (p. 223)
“Mushrooms were also very popular in the civilizations of China, Egypt and Greece. Egyptian pharaohs and Roman emperors actually went so far as to forbid commoners from eating mushrooms; strictly reserving them for nobility only.”
About Portobello and Cremini
The food experts generally agree on three points when it comes to the history of portabellas:
1. This meaty mushroom is an American invention with Italian roots (spores, actually) made popular by clever marketing in the late 1980s/early 1990s. Both cremini and portobello mushrooms are first mentioned in the New York Times during the mid 1980s.
2. There are several theories regarding the name. Although these mushrooms are also currently enjoyed in fine dining establishments of Central/South America, there is no apparent connection between the town of Portobelo (Panama) the origination of the name or item.
3. There is no definitive spelling of this fungus. According to Google (not a scientific, but a popular survey), Portobello is preferred (169,000), followed by portabella (33,100) and portobella (3, 510).
"By the late 1800s...Italian growers also cultivated the common mushroom but preferring the brown-capped variety, which are often called cremini mushrooms (or Italian brown) and have an earthy flavor that is fine for soups and stews and for stuffing. The large and beefy Portabello (also Roma) is actually a fully grown cremini, with dense and meaty flesh that lends itself nicely to grilling or roasting. Originally, crimini mushrooms were imported from Italy, but now they are cultivated in the United States."
---Cambridge World History of Food, Kenneth F. Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas [Cambridge University Press: Cambridge] 2000 Volume Two (p. 1818)
"The name "portobello" began to be used in the 1980s as a brilliant marketing ploy to popularize an unglamorous mushroom that, more often than not, had to be disposed of because growers couldn't sell them."
---The New Food Lover's Companion, Sharon Tyler Herbst, 3rd edition [Barrons:New York] 2001 (p. 485)
"Portobellos are popping up on the nation's menus like mushrooms after a spring rain. From soups and salads to sandwiches and entrees, the portobellos are everywhere. "It's a phenomenon in the food business," says Wade Whitfield of the Mushroom Council, an industry trade group in Roseville, Calif. "This thing has gone from nearly zero in 1993 to a predicted 30 million pounds this year. It's a major item. It will be the largest specialty mushroom." And chefs have found portobellos their own specialty. Whitfield of the Mushroom Council said no one can put their finger on the precise development of the portobello. "I've talked to several growers, and one said that he almost got fired once for growing those things," Whitfield notes. "They are really culls. You didn't want them in the mushroom bed. He would throw them away. There was no market. Growers would take them home."Farges adds that most of the mushroom farmers, many in southeastern Pennsylvania, were of Italian origin. They originally produced brown mushrooms, but the public clamored for the white button variety because it was clean and pristine. In the 1960s and 1970s, with the back-to-earth movement, the growers again started producing the browns. "They are sometimes called Romans, cremini or browns," Farges explains. "It has a much meatier flavor. It became a gourmet item. By accident, they found that if you let it grow, it would grow into a portobello." White mushrooms are still 90 percent of the supply, but portobellos have taken a bite of the market in the past four years. "More growers are converting operations from white to portobellos in their mushroom houses," says Whitfield, adding that the move leads to a reduction in price. With the increased popularity, however, comes a disagreement over the spelling of portobellos. Whitfield explains: "A great deal of the growers are of Italian descent. I don't know who named it, but I understand portabella means 'beautiful door.' With an instead of an 'a' in porto, it means 'beautiful port.'" The Mushroom Council prefers portabella, says Whitfield, but that's open to dispute. "To be honest, I've been here two and a half years, and portobellos were just coming on the scene," he says. "We had five varieties, and portobellos became the sixth. I got to the sticky little point of 'How do you spell it?' O's or A's? At the time I could identify six shippers who were selling portobellos. I called all six of them, and asked, 'How do you spell portobello?' Four out of six spelled it portabella."
---FOR MANY CHEFS, IT'S SUNRISE FOR PORTOBELLOS , By: Ruggless, Ron, Nation'sRestaurant News, 00280518, 5/13/96, Vol. 30, Issue 19
"The chubby cremino (if that is the singular; no one can be sure), properly encouraged by environmental conditions, will metamorphose to a portly portobello (also portabella), a name as difficult to document as cremini. I asked dozens who work with mushrooms, here and in Italy, about the name. The marketing director of a mushroom farm told me, "It was named after Portobello Road in London, where they sell fashionable things, you know." An importer said, "Until ten years ago, the mushroom was cappelaccio in Italy. Then it was renamed after a TV show called Portobello because it sounds better." Another importer told me that "portobello is known only in northern Italy, where it is called capellone." To one authority, capellone means "big hat." To the director of an Italian trade board and a dictionary it means "hippie." Two northern Italian chefs had never heard of capellone or cappelaccio. The most outlandish derivation came from an Italian distributor: "Well, you know that champignon comes from the word for Champagne, and that a Champagne cork looks like a round port and that's how we get porto bello - beautiful port."
Now we know. It is amazing to think that pharaohs regarded mushrooms as nobility only food, and that Japanese culture knew mushrooms could be used as medicine way before today’s research even identified mushrooms as a cancer preventative. Just Amazing.
Well I must thank www.foodtimeline.org for this wonderful and education trip back in time. Check out their website for more insight to when your favourite food got its start.