Why do we consider eating snails from our garden and get excited about finding wild mushrooms? Are we remembering a time when we survived by foraging? Are we yearning for it?
“Kowa!” I yell and tip the mushroom to view the underbelly. Not that I know much about mushrooms, but I do know that kowa are prized. This one looks safe – dark gills, fleshy top, thick stem and a strong mushroomy smell. It’s a bit small, though, for a kowa. I gather an armful anyway.
Gifts from the rain
The mushrooms are gifts from the rain that’s soaking the parched Eastern Cape. We’ve been suffering a severe drought; in the coastal areas, our drought is “green” because occasional spits have warded off the dustbowl situation found inland. Right now, the rain has let up and we’re taking a walk through the reserve and marvelling at the clean colours, smells and offerings.
#him looks on disapprovingly. “I wouldn’t touch them. They might be poisonous,” he declares. What does #him know about mushrooms? Even less than me. I present them to my mother, who grew up on a farm in the Eastern Cape. She knows plenty more. “Kowa!” she, too, says. She also knows how to cook them.
But to be even safer, I send a picture of my haul to my wilderness man friend, Paul Dutton. “I found supper – small kowa,” I say.
“Not kowa,” he replies. “Nevertheless, delish sautéed in butter.”
At about the same time, my mother returns, wielding the mushrooms in water that is a rich burgundy colour. “I don’t think we should eat these,” she says. “They are not behaving like kowa.” She’s washed them to get rid of the grit (Paul says we shouldn’t because it washes away the taste) and “look what they’ve done to the water”. Eek! Also, she says, the skin is too thick. Off to the compost heap then. You never take chances with wild mushrooms.
Paul comes to the rescue via a WhatsApp call. These are horse mushrooms, he says. They’re also called black or field mushrooms. They’re known as horse mushrooms in the US, he says, because they grow in horse manure. There’s plenty of cow manure around here, and that will do very nicely, thank you.
He assures me that these are perfectly edible. I know he knows more than most of us: 30-plus years ago, we feasted on a breakfast of orange mushrooms that he’d picked in the forest outside Mthatha, and we’ve lived to tell the tale. These fungi were Bolitus edulis whose spores came in when exotic pines were planted in the Transkei, Paul tells me later. “It’s known as commensalism, where fungi and pine trees need each other.” They have a spongy, rather than gill-like underbody. And they’re highly prized, like truffles. But you need a fungi fundi (like Paul) so you don’t end up eating similar but poisonous species that also grow in pine forests.
This is not the season for kowa, he explains, and their stems can reach up to a metre into the ground, into termites’ “fungi gardens”. Shallow-rooted horse mushrooms pop out of the ground easily – which is exactly what these did.
My mother fries them in butter, and we tuck in. Not #him; #him watches, ready to cart us off to hospital.
These mushrooms, we agree, are an acquired taste. I find the taste too strong (perhaps we should have soaked the taste out of them, after all); my mother finds it “almost synthetic”. And I wish that Paul was here to eat them. They are delicious in a sauce for pasta, he tells me after I’ve alerted him that I am still alive. I’ll take his word for it.
The rain returns, and I head into the vegetable garden on snail patrol. There are no poisons here and I refuse to stomp on snails and commit mass murder. Instead, I wait for them to emerge from the damp ground and then place them, one by one, in a container.
I march down the dirt road and relocate the creatures a couple of hundred metres from my garden. I toss them into the long grass or the forest where, I am sure, they will live happily ever after (or become lunch for birds and snakes).
My veg garden has your standard garden snails, as well as some huge things with striped shells that I’ve always called sea snails (open to correction, I think these are Achatina zanzibarica). They’re pretty and apparently make good pets, but can also chomp a lettuce or bean plant in one go. I’d rather not have them in my garden.
Today, my friend, Frank, is visiting. “Ohh, can we eat them?” he asks as I grab a sea snail half-burrowed into the soil under the catnip.
“If you want,” I reply. I excuse him because he’s German and maybe that’s what they do over there. But it’s apparently not such a crazy idea. Garden snails are edible, I learn, if you feed them bran and lettuce for a long time to get rid of toxins they might have ingested. Luckily, I’m a vegetarian so won’t be going there. But I did once eat snails – in a restaurant before I stopped eating flesh long ago. Perhaps that’s why I don’t like the smell and taste of garlic today. It was not pleasant.
My method seems to be working as I’m noticing fewer snails and snail-chomped plants in my garden. It’s infinitely better than using poisons. I never will: I once watched a porcupine die after eating something that had been poisoned. You can’t unsee that.
And why, I wonder, do we consider eating snails from our garden and get excited about finding wild mushrooms, perhaps even nodding to the Grim Reaper in our eagerness? Are we remembering a time when we survived by foraging? Are we yearning for it?
It’s an intriguing idea and the more I think about it, the more it starts making sense. But for now, the rain is falling harder. I retreat indoors, hoping it stays.