Mushrooms were a favorite food of both Greeks and Romans, despite the danger of eating the wrong kind. When Agrippina decided to kill her husband Claudius to make her son Nero the new Emperor, she laced a particularly delicious type of morel with poison. Claudius ate them for supper, and the regime change was assured.
The philosopher Seneca called mushrooms the “voluptuous poison” that led people to eat them even when no longer hungry. The field mushroom was particularly relished, but not all that were gathered were safe to eat.
Since the natural supply of field mushrooms was not enough to meet demand, mushrooms were cultivated. Rotten dung was mixed with mould from a bog in beds 1.5 foot wide by 1.5 foot deep. Mushroom spores were sown on the surface and covered with more dung. The bed was then heavily watered. In a few days, mushrooms could be harvested, and the beds were productive until winter.
Athenaeus of Naucratis wrote a 15-volume treatise on culinary and other matters in the late 2nd century AD. He described the method of Nicandor for growing mushrooms that were safe to eat. Manure was placed around the trunk of a fig tree and heavily watered. The resulting mushrooms were expected to be nonpoisonous.
Apicius presents several recipes for mushrooms.
Morels (Fungi Farnei)
Morels are cooked briefly in garum and pepper, then drained. Broth* with crushed pepper can be used instead of garum.
Another Morel Recipe (Aliter Fungi Farnei)
Cook in salt water, oil, and wine.** Serve with chopped coriander.
Mushrooms (Boletos Fungos)
Stew mushrooms in reduced wine*** with coriander leaves. Remove leaves before serving.
Another Mushroom Recipe (Boletos Aliter)
Cook mushroom stems or very small mushrooms (buds) in broth. Sprinkle with salt and serve.
Another Recipe for Mushrooms (Boletos Aliter)
Take the stewed mushrooms and cover with eggs. Add pepper, lovage, some honey, broth, and oil.
*Broth might be a meat broth or a vegetable broth, depending on what the Roman chef wanted to use.
**For non-alcoholic substitutes, see this list of substitutes for wine.
***Reduced wine has been heated to reduce its volume.
Apicius. Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome. Edited and translated by Joseph Dommers Vehling. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1977.
Soyer, Alexis. Food, Cookery, and Dining in Ancient Times: Alexis Soyer’s Pantropheon. Mineola NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 2004.