Mushrooms and Greeks


“I have some saffron milk-cap mushrooms,” the irrepressible John Rerakis of Philhellene’s fame announced. “Freshly picked. Would you like some?”

Within the hour, I presented myself at his place of business, for these fungi, known as μανίτες to us Samians, are a staple winter food and a prized delicacy.

British soldiers introduced the same pine trees as those that grow in Samos to Victoria, and in the process translated the saffron milk-cap spores with them.

When we descend upon the Mornington Peninsula or Macedon in search of provender, this is for us, a homecoming.

Μανίτες are brilliant fried with garlic, or made into pilaf with saffron rice.

During the winter cold, they add gravitas to one of the most hallowed of Greek dishes, fasolada, whose restorative powers can possibly be attributed to the fact that the soup had a liturgical function, in ancient times.

For at the Pyanopsia a festival dedicated to fasolada, our venerable ancestors did offer the soup as a vegetarian sacrifice to the god Apollo, thus simultaneously constituting him the god of music.

According to tradition, upon dispatching Asterion, the Minotaur, the demi-god Theseus first offered fasolada to Apollo on the sacred island of Delos, in thanks for his divine assistance in occasioning the slaughter.

As my Albanian friend Hysni reminds me, the Albanian word for fart is pordhë, cognate with our own Greek πορδή.

How felicitous the world would be if we focused on those things that unite us, instead of those that divide us. How sublime, that some manage to do both simultaneously.

Μανίτες are innocuous yet I am convinced that I am an involuntary devotee of Apollo for every time I eat one, I feel a slight and inordinately pleasing tingle of the tongue.

Should I sit down and eat a whole dish of the them, straight and unchased, in the evening, I can expect to be visited by various muses, with varying degrees of benignity.

This phenomenon is best experienced with friends possessed of the same proclivities.

My compatriot Ioannis writes his best poetry after having consumed a dish of μανίτες friend in garlic.

He recalls me telling him during one μανίτα-fuelled spree that the Chinese character for poetry, (shī) is comprised of three parts. The left radical, is the radical for speaking. The top right radical is the radical for heart. The bottom right radical is the radical for intent.

All this tells us that for the Chinese, poetry is the articulation of the heart's intent.

To this, Ioannis responded that in Greek, on the other hand, poetry is ποίησις, the act of creation itself.

I have no recollection of that particular conversation. Instead, I remember suggesting that as, according to our illustrious ancient forebears, μανίτες were said to derive from the thunderbolts of Zeus, as evidenced by the fact that they appear after rain-storms, we should go out into the winter cold and await their immanent arrival.

After all, did not the neo-platonist philosopher Porphyry opine that mushrooms are “the children of the gods?” As such our fungal counterparts are our brothers and comrades and we ought to be at one with them.

As the thunder crashed around us and we shivered in our sodden state, I recalled that an edition of Σάλπιγξ Ελληνική, the first newspaper printed in revolutionary Greece, in a mosque in Kalamata, editor Theoklitos Pharmakidis urged the Greeks to be merciful to non-combatant Turks as the aim of the Revolution was to strike at tyranny and not at the weak.

I similarly beseeched Zeus to be merciful upon us devotees of Apollo.

Soon after, Ioannis stepped on a particularly pernicious twig which pierced his foot. He called me a mycophiliac, which for all of two minutes, I found particularly hurtful, considering that only I am permitted to recite the thesaurus in diatribes.

By way of recompense, Ioannis offered soon after to cook me a dish of mykai, as mushrooms were known in antiquity, according to the specifications set out in Hellenistic writer Athenaeus: “Deipnosophistai,” the cook-book of partying professors.

The passages that concern edible fungi such as the one following are particularly edifying:

“Mushrooms grow on the ground, and few of them are edible. Most of them cause death by choking. Hence Epicharmus said in jest: "You are like mushrooms: you will dry me up and choke me to death." Nicander in the Georgicsgives a list of the poisonous varieties in these lines: "Deadly pains are laid up in store for the olive-tree, the pomegranate, the ilex, and the oak, the choking weight of swelling mushrooms which adhere to them." But he also says that 61"when you hide deep in dung the stalk of a fig-tree and water it with ever-running streams, mushrooms will grow at the base and be harmless; from it cut not away at the root the mushroom thus grown."

I respectfully declined but Ioannis insisted, quoting further passages of Athenaeus to the effect that: “mushrooms ought to be prepared in the first instance with vinegar, or with honey and vinegar, or honey and salt alone, since in this way the choking element is removed."

This having failed to reassure me, Ioannis sought to divert me by discussing Aristotle’s observations on fungal bioluminescence, a phenomenon which I attributed to the bloom flourishing between my interlocutor’s toes, glowing a sickly green in the gloom.

I felt in relevant to inform him that Hippocrates, around 450BC, classified the amadou mushroom as a potent anti-inflammatory and for the cauterisation of wounds. Ioannis’ only response was that the amadou is also known as the tinder mushroom. Not knowing which way to swipe, I let the matter rest.

Ioannis is one of those recently arrived Greeks who pour scorn upon the Australian-born for choosing to discard the dulcet Hellenic tongue, as spoken in Athens on morning talk-shows, in favour of the nasal overtones of Australian, a dialect of English he has not yet mastered, having obtained only his English proficiency certificate in Larisa.

According to him, all of us would be barred from the life-regenerating Eleusinian mysteries in worship of the goddess Dimitra, and consequently, ineligible to imbibe the kykeon, a heady brew comprised of ergot fungus and psychotropic mushrooms, simply because the concoction was available only to those who spoke Greek and had not committed murder, it being unknown whether this referred to persons, or language.

Miguel Cervantes described the eponymous hero of his Don Quixote as “imagining himself for the valour of his arm already crowned at least Emperor of Trebizond.” Rabelais, in "Gargantua and Pantagruel" had his character Picrochole, (from the Greek Bitter-bile) the ruler of Piedmont, declare: “I want also to be Emperor of Trebizond.”

We emerged from our μανίτα-induced stupor with imperial aplomb.

We are all children of the gods, propagated by their spores and seed.

Within their gills and their caps, toxic or otherwise, and the cycle of birth and decay they silently and selflessly preside over, lies the paradigm of our existence, until such time that is, as their effects wear off.

Dean Kalimniou is a lawyer, author and heavily involved in the Greek-Australian community.

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Guest Contributor

This piece was written for Greek City Times by a Guest Contributor