Let's Eat

The dark side of funghi

Wild mushrooms are now in season. We investigate their dark past.


Jews and mushrooms have not always had a happy association. During medieval times mushrooms had extremely unpleasant connotations. Antisemitism was rife, so when a fungus that looked like a thick rubbery fleshy ear was discovered, it was immediately labelled as a Jew's Ear or Judas's Ear fungus. Its official Latin name was auricularia auricular Judea. It grew on an elder tree - from which Judas was believed to have hanged himself - so a myth was established that linked this fungus with the story of Judas's betrayal.

Equally unpleasant was the description of all mushrooms as "Jew's Meat". They were considered slimy and disgusting and often poisonous so were rarely used as food unless people were starving.

It may seem surprising that Jews should have been associated with such an ugly and potentially dangerous food, but to medieval people, Jews were alien. They were a strange group of people who did not conform to their mode of life. In the same way as the Jew seemed to appear from nowhere, dressed in a different garb and looking extraordinary, so a mushroom materialised suddenly, as if by magic,

In 1938, the toadstool/Jew myth was further expanded by the publication of a child's storybook intended as antisemitic propaganda called Der Giftpilz (literally "the toadstool" or "poison mushroom") with caricatures of Jews in the shape of toadstools.

There are over 38,000 varieties of mushroom. Although we have been eating them since palaeolithic times, they generally have not had a great press. Not surprising when even a tiny forkful of some (such as Night Cap) will kill an adult. Deadly mushrooms were used to poison both Roman emperor Claudius and Pope Clement VII, and Buddha was supposed to have died as a result of eating a mushroom gift from a peasant who falsely believed it to be a delicacy. It is never a good idea to eat any mushroom growing wild.

Antisemitic German propaganda portrayed jews as poisonous toadstools

Stick to those that are edible. If you do, mushrooms possess huge health benefits. They contain massive amounts of selenium, which is thought to be helpful in fighting cancer, particularly prostate cancer, as well as being helpful for male fertility.

Mushrooms are also high in B vitamins: riboflavin, niacin and pantothenic acid and as well as being almost calorie-free. Three ounces of mushrooms contain more potassium than one banana.

Cultivated mushrooms are available all year but autumn sees the peak of the wild mushroom season. Their meaty texture makes them a good alternative for a vegetarian but by no means a second-class option.

Here are a few ideas to try as a snack or side dish.For a light lunch, bake a large field mushroom gently smeared with a little olive oil, layered with slivers of brie and sprinkled with some fresh herbs and a few stoned olives. Cook until it is golden brown and bubbling.

Or sweat a large sliced onion in a little olive oil, add a few punnets of sliced fresh mushrooms, one sliced clove of garlic and a little dried chilli. When cooked, season well, add plenty of freshly chopped parsley and serve over freshly cooked pasta, rice or grilled slices of sourdough bread. Add some fromage frais to the mushroom mixture for a richer creamier sauce.

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