by Ed Halmagyi


In 1991 a German tourist, Helmut Simon, was hiking along the Bolzano glacier that divides Italy and Austria when he and his wife discovered a body sticking out of the ice. He assumed that they had found a homicide victim, and reported the matter to police.

As it happened the deceased man had been killed, with an arrow, approximately 3500BC. He became known as Oetzi the Iceman, named after the valley in which he was found.

Amongst Oetzi’s mummified belongings were bags, clothing, weapons and food. But just what did a Chalcolithic period man take as food when roaming the mountains on a hunting expedition? Dried mushrooms. In fact mushrooms were used for several purposes: as food, as medicine, and even as tinder for fire lighting.

This should come as no great surprise as mushrooms in their various forms grow wildly and are readily accessible as a food source. From the perspective of nutrition, mushrooms were vital to our ancient ancestors as they are a rich source of B group vitamins and folate, contain substantial amounts of protein, and they contain more dietary fibre than wholemeal bread.

I guess we must still have a bit of cave man in us, because Australians consume vast amounts of mushrooms every year. In fact, mushrooms are the second most valuable crop we grow in this country, after potatoes.

Contrary to popular mythology the button, cup and flat mushrooms are in fact the same species, agaricus bisporus. Mushrooms double in size every 24 hours when growing, so the change from small button to a plate-size flat can take just a week or so. There are other species of mushrooms readily available. Portobellos, Swiss browns, oyster, shiitake, wood ear and enoki, just to name a few. And there are even wild mushrooms harvested in Australia at certain times of the year, such as the slippery jack and the pine.

But for a perfect mushroom meal you don’t have to wait for seasonal change, as commercially-grown mushrooms are available year-round. So get in touch with your inner primitive this weekend. And when you fire up the barbie, don’t forget the mushrooms!
Barbecued mushrooms salad with hazelnut pangrattato