I pictured it then, just nine years old. A giant stadium at night, blinding lights bearing down. The hungry roar of the crowd quietening into rapt tension. The crunch of a boot on green turf. Thwack! And the roar again, stronger this time as eyes watch, follow …
But it was one of those moments when you wake up and realise where you really are. On a soccer field, yes. But no crowd, no glaring stadium lights. Just a modest small-town soccer field on the edge of town, and it’s Sunday morning coming down on a boy’s wild imagination.
In my hand is a carrier bag. Next to me is my dad with a pocket knife in his hand, and he’s bending down, bothering the turf, looking for something. And he’s found it. A small, round white thing, and another, bigger, nearby. I start to scan the grass from corner to corner, post to post, and I realise that they’re all over the field, in little clusters, generally growing in the slightly longer tufts of grass. Mushrooms. White button mushrooms growing wild on a soccer field in Nowheresfontein.
We half-fill the bag and walked home. I follow dad into the kitchen and watch as he chops onions, simmers them in a big pot, adds the mushrooms, stirs them, adds cream and lets them simmer. He ladles some into a bowl for me and I eat mushrooms for the first time in my life. I’ve loved them ever since.
What he had made, really, was a mushroom sauce, lovely with a steak. Today I’d first add a glass of white wine to the onions and mushrooms and reduce that down, then a goodly dash of brandy, before adding the cream and simmering it for a while. To then simmer it in the pan in which the steak had been cooked, and collect all the juices, would be perfection.
But we’re not cooking steak today. Today is all about mushrooms. Not buttons either. Because I’ve found a source of fresh porcini, enoki, shimeji, shiitake and several varieties of oyster mushrooms.
What I love about mushrooms is how they take on other flavours without losing their own. It’s almost impossible to mask the flavour of a mushroom, yet all sorts of things, from wine and sherry to lemon, garlic and spices, happily blend with a mushroom’s distinctive, earthy flavours. Mushrooms can be turned into a soup or a sauce, can be the main event in a starter or a side dish with a main course. You can have them on toast, or fill an omelette with them. I haven’t, as yet, found a dessert containing them, but there probably is one, somewhere, and you certainly can incorporate them in a cheese board or for that matter by making the pate pictured on this page.
The pate is made from fresh porcini and oyster mushrooms, and the lovely thing about it was that you could taste both the porcini and the oysters. In a small pot, simmer finely sliced orange (peel and all) over a very low heat with Van der Hum liqueur. This makes pretty much an instant marmalade, if a slightly tipsy one. Saute chopped spring onion and garlic in butter until soft, add roughly chopped porcini and oyster mushrooms (or just porcini) and sprigs of fresh thyme, and simmer, stirring frequenty, until the mushrooms are tender and all moisture has been absorbed. You could quite honestly use any kind of mushroom for this dish, so if you can’t find porcini, grab some buttons or browns at your local and use those.
Cool, then stir in only the syrup from the marmalade. (Retain the orange slices for garnish). Whizz it in the blender with several nobs of butter to make a soft but not runny pate. It is lovely with slices of lightly toasted garlic ciabatta. Scoop into ramekins, refrigerate to chill, then served topped with some of the orange Van der Hum marmalade.
For the porcini soup, gently saute finely chopped shallots and garlic in butter until lightly golden, add roughly chopped porcini mushrooms, simmer for five minutes, stirring occasionally, then add white wine and water, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, cover and and leave the flavours to develop for some 20 minutes, stirring now and then. Blend until smooth, stir a tub of creme fraiche into it, and reheat. If it is too thick, add a little more water and/or white wine, heat through, simmer for a few minutes and serve. The garnish in the picture, in case you were wondering, is a rocket flower.
The mushrooms with the omelette are shiitake. They should really have been folded into the omelette, but not owning an intra-omelette camera I served it with the shiitake arranged with some panache, I thought (look it up, Daisy), in the centre. But omelettes are a whole column in their own right. The shiitake’s had been sauteed briefly in olive oil with garlic.
I do, by the way, get curious looks when I tell the story of the Sunday morning when my dad and I collected what looked like button mushrooms on the local soccer field. I don’t know how sure he was that they really were edible buttons and not some madly poisonous toadstool that might have prevented you reading this today. But he didn’t look too concerned and he’s not here any more for me to ask him.
Just please don’t follow his example unless you’re absolutely sure you know what you’re doing. And don’t eat them raw. Wonderful as a mushroom is cooked, it is horrible raw. Horrible.
Yes, I know – tell that to anyone who’s ever made a Seventies braai salad. That’s another column too.
Order these exotic mushrooms from Anya de Hart at Nouvelle Mushrooms 021 887 5593.
First published in Weekend Argus The Good Weekend January 2010