Comfort food is synonymous with winter, but for DAVE PEPLER the epitome of comfort food is created from mushrooms – gathered wild, of course.
Skop uit en trap flenters. Duiwelsbrood!” (“Kick them and crush them. Devil’s bread!”) shouted my grandmother Lilly when I was five years old and had found some fresh mushrooms along Hopley Lane in Robertson. Gleefully, on instructions from this formidable woman, I kicked them to smithereens, the pale caps with their cappuccino gills flying in the icy winter air. Little did I know then that I was destroying a perfect winter dish of ambrosial mushrooms.
Only when I was in high school did I meet the right person to show me the ropes of mushroom foraging. I was a shy child and spent my free time either in the glorious Little Karoo veld or cycling through the tree-lined town, looking for birds’ nests and plant cuttings for our wild home garden or, as children used to do, pilfering the odd fruit hanging over an unguarded fence.
One frosty morning my eye caught an elegant figure, tall and with a ramrod back, bending over some mushrooms on the school rugby field. I approached timidly and in broken English asked him what he was picking. The gentleman was a retired Scottish surgeon and he was collecting mushrooms for dinner. It’s a true blessing when such a person crosses your path; with the greatest patience, he introduced me to this deeply rooted European tradition. To this day, I can still hear his voice, smell the damp tweed of his coat. And I still remember my very first taste of a wild mushroom.
Winter brings us short days and cold nights, but for the seasoned lover of this dusky season it also brings comfort. Comfort? Yes, because winter is when the first percolation of coffee scents the entire house, when soups and stews appear on our tables and when every taste is amplified in the crystalline air. Now is the time of year when one should take long walks with basket and knife and an eye attuned to what’s happening at ground level. In this gloaming, mushrooms thrive.
A simple definition of a mushroom reads thus: “A mushroom or toadstool is the fleshy, spore-bearing fruiting body of a fungus, typically produced above ground, on soil or on its food source.” These fruiting bodies are the annual product of a vast underground network of interconnected, hair-thin tubes known as the mycelium. Only when conditions are optimal in terms of moisture and temperature does the mycelium come to life; drawing fluids from the underground network, it pushes up the glorious caps overnight.
In South Africa, especially where oaks and pines have been planted, most years produce a bounty of utterly delicious mushrooms, such as Boletus edulis (the renowned porcini in Italy, cep in France) and Lactarius deliciosus, the famed pine ring of Iberia. But before setting out, you should be aware of – and adhere to – some crucial rules. If you have no basic knowledge of fungi you may, in all innocence, pick some of the deadliest mushrooms known to science. Should you taint your pickings with a single death cap Amanita phalloides, you and your family will die. It’s that simple.
The only way to gain knowledge and confidence is to buy one of the excellent mushroom field guides* available in South Africa and meticulously follow its directions. Once you’re familiar with the contents, especially the identification of poisonous species, the next step is to find a knowledgeable person to guide you through the practicalities.
And when you’ve returned from your mushroom-hunting expedition with a basketful of booty, you’re ready for a culinary experience of a lifetime. I believe all mushroom recipes benefit from a basic approach. The inclination to add herbs and other flavourings to mushroom dishes is strong – understandably, since most commercially produced mushrooms are rather tasteless – but it’s all too easy to mask the glorious taste of the real, natural thing. So here is my recipe for the crown prince of mushroom dishes, Porcini Mushroom Risotto.
Finely chop a medium-sized onion, add a small clove of garlic, crushed, and sauté in a 50/50 mixture of fine olive oil and salted butter. Once translucent, add the roughly chopped boletus mushrooms and when cooked through, set aside. In a separate saucepan, add another finely chopped onion to olive oil and fry over medium heat until translucent. Add one cup of arborio rice and stir until the oil has coated the grains well. Increase the heat and deglaze with a cup of fine white wine.
Now comes the risotto secret: after adding the cooked mushrooms to the rice, add a cup of strained chicken broth, homemade if possible, and stir continuously until the liquid has been absorbed. Continue to add stock until the rice is cooked through and the mixture becomes glutinous. Season and serve piping hot, with a sprinkling of grated
If a culinary paradise exists, Risotto al funghi porcini will be on the menu daily. I can think of no other dish that speaks of the soil so eloquently.
*An example is Field Guide to Mushrooms and Other Fungi of South Africa by Gary B Goldman and Marieka Gryzenhout. 2019. Struik Nature, Penguin Random House South Africa.