Mucking about with mushrooms

Mucking about with mushrooms
Ceps a.k.a. porcini or penny bun. (Photo: silviarita on Pixabay)

For something that grows in chicken manure and chemicals, the mushroom has done brilliantly to reach such heightened levels of culinary audacity.

I drive a million miles out to Denny Mushrooms, one of the largest producers of commercial mushrooms, outside Durbanville, stuck in a strange landscape that looks a bit like the Russian Steppes, parts seem lush, other parts irradiated. At the gate I am asked for my driving licence which I have never been asked for before by anyone who wasn’t a cop. 

Everything here is about control, the temperature, the border fencing, the security. Mushrooms are grown in a severely policed environment, the avatars of culinary endeavours all over the world, blockbusters of basic cuisine, but at heart a bit slutty, sticking their feet in chicken shit and chemicals. 

I have often wondered where all the commercial mushrooms we eat really come from. In my mind there is a container at the bottom of town that I once wrote about which was a mushroom startup. It had the chemical stink of a laboratory and was darkened with a soaking humidity, an atmosphere adored by these strange Harry Potter fungi. 

Okay, let me confess, I have never really trusted mushrooms, particularly commercially sold ’shrooms where the taste is also a bit underwhelming. In fact, the taste of a mushroom, any mushroom, reminds me of a drinks cupboard we had at home which contained a bottle of angostura bitters (as you know I am a bit addicted to AB because it was the only alcohol I could get my hands on as a child) and some dried Colman’s mustard. It smelt like an old cupboard.

Mushrooms have always had a good press because on social media platforms everything we see corresponds to our algorithmically guided preferences. And my God do they use their looks.

When I see mushrooms in a stew, I consider them just something to add bulk, sort of pimps for the main course. I could never take a mushroom, especially those bleak white commercial ones, seriously. However, it is true, a lot of people use mushrooms instead of meat. 

I mean could anything grown in the dark on chicken shit really taste good or be good for you? Once again, I am wrong. 

Mushrooms apparently have a phenomenal capacity to improve human health. They are bursting with proteins and one serving has about 15 vitamins and minerals, including that elusive Vitamin B6, folate magnesium, zinc and potassium and they can even degrade environmental toxins.

Their role as guardians of the biosphere becomes clear as new research into their complex biochemistry proves their potential to combat hunger, improve immunity and clean up polluted lands. Really?

They’re also rich in antioxidants, such as ergothioneine and selenium, which are both anti-inflammatory compounds. Mushrooms are a great food to consume when you have minor inflammation, such as any injury, or if you have any autoimmune disorders such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis or lupus. Don’t try this at home.

In fact, if the promo can be believed we should be buying them from the pharmacy. Chernobyl should be growing them all over the place because according to what I have read they are the slaves of the biosphere because they can clean up polluted lands.

Personally, I would take this all with a pinch of salt, literally, something as nondescript just couldn’t be good for you and what about that total lack of green? To me mushrooms, commercial mushrooms particularly, are an adjunct to a meal, not a meal in itself.

However, wild mushrooms are another thing. They contain higher contents of protein and lower fat concentrations. In general, commercial species seem to have higher concentrations of sugars.

Fly agaric. Avoid. (Photo: Unattributed on Pixabay)

As a child, guided by my eccentric pa, I was enticed into eating exotic mushrooms, picked in the forests near where we lived. I worked on the principle, “Okay, if I am not dead tomorrow, I will eat them again.” I contemplated purple mushrooms with white stripes, scarlet caps with white dots, bright yellow hooded rooms, dark old-bark-coloured Boletus Edulis, what we called ceps in France, and lived to tell the tale. Each species had an entirely different and exciting taste. I ate a lot of really dire looking mushrooms that grew in clusters up a tree, what we today might call oyster mushrooms.

In common speech, people tend to use the word toadstool to refer to fungi that are toxic, poisonous, or simply inedible, while the word mushroom is used to describe tasty and edible mushrooms.

But over the years commercially produced mushrooms have improved. Denny produces a large percentage of the mushrooms we buy, those small bomb shaped things wrapped in plastic. I gotta say they are adorably pretty, even though their feet are stuck in chemicals. Nowadays, mushrooms are grown on hotbeds with chemical fertilisers, and are available in abundance, and edible mushrooms are in the market all year around at an affordable price. 

Portobello mushrooms on the braai. (Photo: jatocreate on Pixabay)

Denny produces the big three – white button, cremini and portobello – and the fascinating thing, well to me, is that they are all the same mushroom in different stages of growth. The big portobello mushrooms are sometimes called steak mushrooms and could well take the place of meat or be stuffed. When I lived in France, I relied on the black chanterelle mushroom with its strange, trumpet shaped silhouette and midnight colour. I always crossed my fingers that I would be alive the next morning. 

Around the time I was growing up, a whole family in Knysna was wiped out eating poisonous mushrooms. My pa never tired of telling us the story, adding every bloody detail with gusto. 

Funnel chanterelles and black trumpets. (Photo: Kromdahl on Pixabay)

The gig economy works itself to death when it comes to growing mushrooms as a hobby. There are many countries that love mushrooms, in France nearly everything I cooked called for them. The Baltic states and Russia are mad about mushrooms, but I have never eaten a meal in other parts of Africa that contained one mushroom. 

Today in Denny’s part of the craft factory I am dressed in PPE white boots, net on my head, sanitation is prime here as we go to the “farm” which is a few long, dark sheds with racks of shale, chicken manure and chemical fertiliser. The bright white mushrooms have popped up all over the place; botany as pure magic. 

“Do you eat mushrooms?” Margaret Marx, factory manager who shows me round, asks. I have to admit that I do not. I just don’t believe they are good for you. 

When I was growing up my parents were broke. My father was always looking for ways to make a bit of money, in the process of which he lost any money he had ever had. He tried making homemade chocolates, jam. Mushrooms never quite lost their allure and there was always a brown cardboard box under the bed that smelt funny. At one time he was convinced that the whole of England would buy biltong. He even wrote a couple of fairly unreadable books. I have the manuscripts of one beside me as I write. Nope, he wasn’t a writer. 

But the mushrooms were there to fall back on. “What about the mushrooms,” we would ask hopefully when we needed something like a school hat.

The internet is crammed with people offering info on growing mushrooms. They offer help in growing Shiitake mushrooms on logs, oyster mushrooms using lime technique and there are lots of eccentric by-products for the scientifically minded to get their minds around. The South African Mushroom Academy is very helpful.

But as Margaret Marx pointed out: “Growing your own mushrooms is definitely more difficult than growing nearly any other crop if you use the standard methods. Mushroom farming relies on significant pasteurisation equipment and climatic control. This can be hard to recreate at home without spending a fortune.”

Perhaps it was the brown box under the bed, but I have always disliked mushrooms, except maybe the odd cep or wild mushroom you sometimes find. I think what I find most disturbing is that they don’t grow in soil. They prefer muck. DM/TGIFood

South African Gourmet Mushroom Academy 082 749 8553 Contact [email protected]


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