Sunday, November 08, 2015

A Short History Of Mushrooms

When the Talayotic folk of prehistoric Mallorca were gathering their winter food, one would have to suppose that they would have been foraging among the forest and woodlands of the island that were denser in those times. In October-November time, or however they described autumn, if at all, back in the late second millennium BC, prehistoric Mallorcans would have had an abundance of mushrooms to choose from. Not having left behind any documentary evidence, it's impossible to know how they cooked mushrooms, how many of them keeled over as a consequence of selecting a poisonous mushroom or indeed what sort of psychedelic trips some of them might have gone on. But mushrooms there most definitely would have been. Huge numbers of them.

Little is known of Roman culinary habits once they took over Mallorca a thousand or so years later, but it is known that the Romans in general were partial to the odd mushroom or several. Around the Mediterranean, mushrooms were held in high culinary regard, the Egyptian pharaohs having considered the edible variety to be the food of gods. Moving closer to the present, as in around 800 years ago, when the Catalans ousted the Muslims, who doubtless had a penchant for the Mallorcan mushroom themselves, a whole type of cooking was to be introduced to the island. One of Europe's oldest culinary manuscripts is a Catalan one - "El libre de Sent Sovi", a compilation from the early fourteenth century of ingredients, staples and recipes. This cuisine was developed, courtesy of the diverse climates of Catalan lands, including Majorca, and thus the mushroom came to be used, such as an ingredient for sauces.

Though available in abundance, there was a high degree of class distinction when it came to eating back in the day. There was also a premium placed on the fruits of the land that the wealthy landowners possessed. The mediaeval Catalan upper class, therefore, was inclined to charge for gathering wild produce, and this included mushrooms. They were on their land, so therefore they owned them.

This late Middle Ages mushroom tax (it also applied to the likes of berries and herbs) has echoes of the current day. Under recent Balearic law, landowners can register their land in such a way that they can then ask for money from those who come to pick mushrooms, an innovation with which not all Mallorcans are in agreement. The picking of mushrooms in autumn is a long tradition.

There is a distinction to be made between wild mushrooms in their different varieties and the cultivation of the standardised white mushroom. This apparently came from France in the mid-seventeenth century when a melon grower discovered white mushrooms growing on his manure. It became popular, and so the "champignon" was created, aka the "xampinyon" in Catalan.

It was another Frenchman, Pierre Bulliard, who was to first describe - in 1782 - the "Boletus edulis". The range of "bolets" has grown since then, and the word is often used to refer to all manner of mushroom types, among them the "picornell" and the "esclata-sang", which sort of translates, I'm guessing, as blood bursts. This latter variety forms the theme of the fair in Mancor de la Vall later this month, a fair that had been in jeopardy because of some old carry-on involving the new town hall administration but which will now go ahead.

The mushroom finds its way into different autumn fairs. In Porreres recently, there was a mushroom exhibition and introduction to the different varieties. As part of Pollensa's fair this coming weekend, there is a mycology day (mycology being the study of mushrooms). For fifteen euros, there is a guided tour of mushrooms lurking around Cala San Vicenç and then dinner. A tour is actually useful in order to be able to distinguish between the varieties which are edible and those which are not.

Many a Mallorcan will have such knowledge, though, as the mushroom-picking ritual is so established. When it has rained on two or three occasions, it is time to troop off in search of the "esclata-sangs", the "blaves", the "gírgoles" and too many others to mention.

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