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A fairy ring of mushrooms

A fairy ring of mushrooms
About a quarter of my haul of horse mushrooms. The red onion is large, to give an idea of the size of the mushrooms.(Photo: Tony Jackman)

It’s a magical moment when autumn delivers an abundance of fungi, right to your door.

Fairy rings. Broad circles in the grass, made of mushrooms, as if they’re little girls and boys holding hands and singing Ring a ring ‘o roses. Celtic legend has it that if you step inside a fairy ring, you must dance with the mushrooms until you either go mad or fall dead from exhaustion. These otherworldly rings occur in forest glades and, as my luck would have it, on a green and pleasant farm in the Winterberg near Adelaide in the Eastern Cape, where a kindly farmer, just last week, picked horse mushrooms and a giant cep and brought them to Cradock for me. 

Most fascinating tidbit of all, during our Monday morning chat at the start of this mushroom adventure, was to learn that mushrooms are neither plant nor animal, but a kingdom all their own. It’s one of those things we have always probably known without thinking much about it. Fungi, a breed apart, an outlander, as if they’re aliens come from some mysterious planet where trees grow taller than skyscrapers and mossy earth life flourishes in their boggy shadows, craning to get a glimpse of sunshine from the faraway tree tops. And fairies flit and prance among circles of ’shrooms, and humans who pass in their crunching boots get a whiff of anise, or a hint of truffle, and wonder about all that strange life beneath their feet. 

There’s a bit of fancy in what I’ve written there, but it’s believed that there’s a symbiotic relationship between certain trees and fungi, and that there’s what has been called a “wood-wide web” of trees connected by subterranean fungal networks, sharing water and nutrients, even “communicating”. There’s even evidence, says my friend, of a big old tree cosseting an offspring. A German forester called Peter Wohlleben, who has the attention of scientists, has had much to say about this, and is worth googling. All of that, though, is a sizable rabbit hole that you may or may not have the time to go down. 

The only fungus you could confuse a horse mushroom with, says my new friend, peering at the haul of fungi he has bestowed on me, is the yellow staining mushroom. So there’s a good chance I’ll still be alive in the morning. Shifting in his chair, he asks me to send him a WhatsApp next morning to let him know I’m okay. But I shouldn’t worry overly, he says. He and his wife had some for supper last night, and they’re still here. 

It’s the latest example of that Karoo thing. Somebody crops up with a load of something they’ve grown, having heard that I write about food, and would I like …? I most certainly would, and thank you. Almost the entire kitchen is full of massive horse mushrooms and for the rest of the day I frantically make mushroom stock, plan a porcini soup, and start a drying process with some of them. 

Yellow staining mushrooms smell a bit like carbolic acid, he tells me after asking that I don’t name him, whereas horse mushrooms smell of anise. But there’s something else about them, I soon discover. When I cook them, days later, I bend over the bubbling pot and get a whiff of something unexpected: truffle! Undoubtedly, exquisitely, truffle. The taste, though, is somewhat different. 

Horse mushrooms, aka field (in the USA) or snowball mushrooms, grow widely in South Africa in autumn after good rains, often in a fairy ring several metres in diameter. Don’t take my word for it that what you’re seeing and picking is the right variety though, as the very similar looking yellow staining variety is going to make you ill. 

But let’s make the spread of this mushroom tale much broader (we don’t all have a kindly mushroom Santa to hand), and see it against the backdrop of this being the right time of year to explore the food markets in search of whatever fungi the traders have found or grown for us. This is when to look out for porcini (ceps in France), arguably the finest of all eating mushrooms, and there’s a pretty good chance you’ll find some if you browse the various food markets in the present season. 

Beautiful dark brown mushroom stock. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

I set about making dark mushroom stock and drying mushrooms. First, I relegated eight or so of the larger horse mushrooms to the biltong dryer. Cut into thick strips, I pierced them with plastic hooks and hung them in this cardboard box contraption which has a light bulb below a cardboard sheet with holes in it for light and warmth to escape through and float up to aid the drying process. Two days later, they were papery soft and crispy, light as marshmallows, and I have stored them in a canvas bag zipped up at the top. So they’re in the dark, but not cut off from air, and I’m watching them with interest. The plan is to reinvigorate them by soaking them in water, and most likely use them in a pasta sauce.

For a dark mushroom stock, I filled a large Dutch oven with roughly chopped horse mushrooms, added 3 large chopped carrots, 2 chopped celery sticks, 2 medium onions and covered them with cold water. I let it boil away until I was left with 500 ml of beautifully dark mushroom stock. That’s the stock I used to make the soup recipe on this page, and because I had such an abundance of mushrooms I cooked a lot of those too, but you can actually make a mushroom soup only from such a dark mushroom stock, starting with a simple flour-butter roux and building it up from there. 

Dried mushrooms. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

To dry mushrooms in a biltong dryer, cut them into thick strips and skewer or pierce with hooks, and hang them in the lighted biltong dryer in a dark spot for 2 to 3 days, then store in brown paper bags in a cool, dark place or in an airtight container. It’s said that they can last indefinitely if completely dried out. Revive them in soaking water. 

Way down on the ground, far below the distant tree tops, there’s an entire universe of fungi with networks tapping into one another, as unrelated species aid and abet one another. Some are delicious to eat, others are deadly. On that farm in the Winterberg, my friend has found death caps and even fly agaric, the fabled red and white mushroom from Alice in Wonderland. It’s some consolation to know that it’s years since my benefactor spent successive seasons trying to identify the strange fairy rings of large whitish mushrooms, sending photographs off to experts, browsing the internet, and finally plucking up the courage to eat one and damn the consequences. “The next day I was fine,” he smiles. Me too. DM/TGIFood

Tony Jackman is Galliova Food Champion 2021. His book, foodSTUFF, is available in the DM Shop. Buy it here

Follow Tony Jackman on Instagram @tony_jackman_cooks. Share your versions of his recipes with him on Instagram and he’ll see them and respond.

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