It’s a truism that if one’s never had or enjoyed something, one doesn’t miss it. When I was in my 20’s, I discovered that I had a problem with caffeine. And, a couple of years later, with pseudoephedrine. Both give me a buzz, stop me from sleeping and the latter gives me serious nightmares. That’s more than twenty thirty years ago. Learning to cope without that after dinner coffee was difficult. Learning not to drink coffee – even the inexpensive stuff that’s not supposed to give you a kick – after lunch, was equally difficult.
I have learned not to miss it. I am terrified of medication that might include either. That first experience with pseudoephedrine was so bad, I still remember the consecutive nights of no sleep. My body and head ached with the worst dose of influenza, ever, in my twenty-something years. I was exhausted and try as I might, I could not sleep. I didn’t know why. In desperation, after three days and nights of sleep deprivation, not getting better and in tears, I phoned for an urgent appointment with my doctor. She changed the medication: a nose drop replaced the decongestant tablet. I slept like a baby – for days – and began to get better.
The way I show people I care, is through cooking and food. I love cooking; I love flavours as do many of our friends. Fortunately, neither The Husband nor I have food allergies. It’s an affliction The Husband understands: his father was allergic to mustard; it would send him into anaphylactic shock. Even in minute quantities. I have learned to understand it thanks to my reactions to pseudoephedrine and caffeine. The consequences of too much caffeine although not life-threatening, are such that it’s just not worth that glorious cup of coffee after dinner or the late summer afternoon iced coffee. I’ve learned to live without it after dinner and at least I get to enjoy it with breakfast and before midday.
The pseudoephedrine nightmares stop when the course of medication ends. I weigh up the benefits of some nightmarish sleep against none at all.
Why the digression?
Another truism (and idiom) is that birds of a feather flock together, so many of our friends enjoy food, flavours, cooking. Some are or have been chefs, restauranteurs and publicans. One is allergic to mushrooms. So allergic that even if a smidgeon of mushroom finds its way into a dish, she’s ill for days. It’s an allergy she’s had since childhood. We’ve been at dinner parties where she’s eschewed the main and politely only eaten rice (with whatever available condiments) and garlic bread.
I know enough about her enjoyment of flavours to know that if she were able to eat mushrooms, she’d be hooked. My sharing our marvellous discovery of edible mushrooms in our garden was, though, entirely lost on her. It made me sad.
I grew up with a horticulturist father. We always had a vegetable garden and it’s from him I inherited green fingers and my constant love of eating our own produce: whether we planted it or not. Not having grown up in this country, he didn’t forage here, but I know that as a child in Scotland, he did. This means that when field mushrooms seasonally popped up in the rolling lawns of the gardens he curated, they’d end up on our table.
One of the workers would pick them in the early morning and bring them to our house. My mother would “tidy them up” and they’d sit, gills down. They dropped their spores like dark brown fairy rings on the white ceramic. I remember my father laboriously explaining what made edible mushrooms identifiable including their smell. For as long as we lived in that house, and when the conditions were right, we’d have mushrooms from “the gardens”.
Not all mushrooms are magic
Along with his enthusiasm for mushrooms that didn’t emerge from a plastic an polystyrene package, came my father’s caveat that not all mushrooms are edible. He cautioned against foraging unless one knows what one’s doing. At that age and stage in my life, he didn’t elaborate on those “other” mushrooms that create magic of a different sort…. That said, although cautious, I’m not averse to finding out whether we might eat fungi that grow in our garden. There are a lot.
I believe that along with the mushrooms, we have fairies…
Over the years, I’ve photographed the mushrooms that have popped up. The bit of research I’ve done over the last couple of weeks suggests that the top left two frilly jobs might, just be edible. We now know, and live to tell, that the mushrooms in the bottom right picture are edible.
Nearly a month ago, The Husband called me into the vegetable garden:
Have you seen the huge mushrooms in the vegetable patch?
We stared at them in awe, not quite sure what to do, and then went about our day. Then more came up; they reminded him of the mushrooms that grow out of the ant nests where his cattle grazed in Zimbabwe. It was Friday. Then on Saturday, there were more, including this magnificent specimen. In the interim, I had asked a market mate about them and he offered to bring his mushroom book to the market. Then I realised that there are inevitably folk with hidden knowledge and talents who’ve been in the village for years.I picked that huge MoFo. I have two regrets: not weighing it or taking a photograph of the harvested creature. It occupied virtually the entire diameter of this bowl. Yes, that’s a teaspoon to give a sense of scale.
At the market, we discovered that a knowledgeable Mushroom Man lives in the village and has, forever. He’s a regular at the market, so when he trundled by, The Husband presented him with the creature. His eyes lit up –
Are they edible?
Yes, they are de-li-cious!
He told us how this particular mushroom is always associated with ants (termites). Years ago, he continued, he and a few other folk would harvest these and field mushrooms in the horse and cattle pastures (the then open plots) around the village. They’d do it in the early dawn and before anyone else discovered the treasure.
He inspected it: pointed out the gills, that it had a cap and “frill”, deeply breathing in the aroma of earthy mushroom. He echoed my father’s judgement –
It smells right.
So delighted was I, that in gratitude, I asked him if he’d like it. His eyes lit up and accepted without hesitation. He went on to advise that we should harvest the remaining crop because they “go over” quickly. I promptly followed his instructions. This was the first haul.
Many fungi are parasitic and/or symbiotic. This mushroom – its name, amaKhowe is isiZulu, and means “wild mushroom”, only grows in the presence of ants. Termites – of whatever variety – are essential to their very existence:
This mushroom (Termitomyces umkowaani) is a large, finely fleshed beefsteak mushroom with a cap that can grow up to 30 cm in diameter. They have a sweet and mildly nutty flavor. This mushroom species belongs to a variety of mushrooms that depend on the activity of termites for their “cultivation,” and grow in a symbiotic relationship with the insects inside their nests. The termites transplant the amakhowe spores to their nests, where the fungi break down wood and dried grass, decomposing materials like cellulose and lignin, which the insects cannot digest, and [this] form[s] a biomass that is rich in nitrogen and can be consumed by the termites. When it rains in the spring, within 24 hours the fungi produce the aboveground portion of the mushrooms that is consumed by humans.
This confirmed that “our” mushrooms are, indeed, the same mushrooms that The Husband remembers from his youth. As it turns out, the section of our garden, and those stone paths that separate our vegetable beds are often crawling with large ants. As I think about it, the garden is a maze of ant nests – ants of different varieties. We have subsequently harvested mushrooms from other parts of the garden and now watch more carefully – in the hope that they push their way from the depths of those nests. I am amazed at how they displace earth and stone.
These mushrooms, although emerging in autumn, did follow rain and significant flying ant activity.
The best ever Shroom Risotto
As usual, my mother is a reference for how ingredients were commonly used. As I recall, she used mushrooms in a sauce (often with red wine) and fried, for breakfasts, and that’s about it. I, on the other hand, will use mushrooms in a variety of ways. I’m reminded of another restaurateur friend who wondered what anyone sees in fresh shrooms – they’re tasteless!
They are, if one doesn’t develop the flavour: slow cooked with olive oil (and butter if you do that), white wine and parsley or thyme does it for me. Somewhere, I also have a recipe for a light pickle with dill and make a ‘shroom and nut pate… All are delicious.
Beefsteak Mushroom King
In addition to the isiZulu name, these are known as beefsteak mushrooms, so I decided we needed a meal that made them king. Not many of them were beautiful, so stuffing and eating them whole was not really an option. It was either pasta or risotto. I settled for the latter because it’s a dish that allows complex flavours to develop.
Risotto is not difficult to make. Rather, it is like a small child: you can’t leave it to its own devices. It’s also best made with arborio (glutinous) rice. Simply sauté a finely chopped onion in a generous quantity of olive oil and add finely chopped (minced) garlic. At the same time, prepare the stock (broth) – either chicken or vegetable – and keep it warm. I use the latter or my own home made chicken stock if I have some (I make and freeze it). Once the onion is transparent, add the rice and stir to coat and cook a little. Before adding the stock, add the white wine and once that’s absorbed, repeat the process with the stock until the rice is cooked and the mixture is the appropriate consistency.
Finally, add the bits with which you want to eat the risotto – in this case, the mushroom. The final two and traditional ingredients is a grating of Parmesan cheese and chopped parsley. If you’d like a recipe with quantities and instructions, download one here. If you download recipes, buy me a coffee. Or better yet, a glass of wine….?
In case you think I’m a soak…
I am aware that this meal seems awash with wine. I do like to cook with wine, and yes, often it’s in the glass to the right of the stove. This time, though, it’s not about the alcohol, it’s about the flavour. There is something about the flavour that dry white wine brings to both mushrooms and risotto that it would be a cardinal sin to omit it.
A last word
Unless you’re absolutely certain that the mushrooms or fungi you forage are not toxic, don’t touch them. As one wag put it, you only need to taste it once…
In addition to the source already quoted, and for South Africans, I found at least two useful (and active) pages on Facebook as well as the Mushroom Guru website. I have no doubt that there are similar local resources wherever one can forage for fungi.
Until next time, be well
The Sandbag House
McGregor, South Africa
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