Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Raven Excrement

Writing about corn last week, I neglected to mention my one regret: all the ears I threw away because the were infected with black smut fungus.

This particular mushroom I now know to be an excellent edible. It's called Huitlacoche, a Maya word that (supposedly) means "Raven Excrement", and it's considered a delicacy both in Mexico and Japan.

Since learning that Huitlacoche is a favored edible, I've spent miles driving around New Jersey trying to find some. I've haunted farm markets and roadside produce stands, bugging farmers and their children. All I've gotten so far are blank looks, shaken heads, or flabbergasted stares, as in, "You can eat that?"

Finally, two years ago at an event sponsored by the New York Mycological Society, a member brought in a few ears from a friendly farmer's fields. It wasn't as strong-tasting as its hideous appearance - rather yeasty and corny - but it certainly inspired.

Last month I saw it commercially canned. At a party (again, an NYMS event) someone won a jar in a gift exchange.

The average person would look at the canned product, or the fresh, with (I'm sure) a feeling of disgust. The mushroom is black with gray and whitish blooms, has a bulbous, cancerous appearance, and smells potently. What's in the commercial jar is a black, dangerous looking liquid, in which a few corn kernels float. Still, I take real interest in the stuff - as I do with all things fungal.

Huitlacoche is of particular interest to me because of its botanic links to my GF baking specialty: natural leavened breads. Leavens are a blend of fungi and bacteria. Properly captured and nurtured, they're a balancing act that rewards us humans with great flavors and excellent nutrition. Granted, Huitlacoche is not a suitable fungi for leavening, but since it's found on grain, (as are those organisms which make leaven) and it's in the fungal kingdom, I say it's related enough to count.

So this summer, scout around your area and see if you can find any. A bit of on-line searching will yield recipes. And, if you know a farmer who's got a batch, kindly pass on the location to me!


myxobolus said...

I was hoping to try growing some this year. I grew up on a farm and we'd always throw those ears away with disgust, being careful not to touch it with our bare hands. I saw a show a few years back where Ming Tsai was cooking with it. I've been interested in trying it since.

Charles Luce said...

I'd try growing some too if I didn't live in an apartment. There was a good article in Fungi magazine last summer (which you can obtain through the North American Mycological Association) detailing exactly how to grow Huitlacoche. The author claims nearly 100% infestation rates!

myxobolus said...

Thanks for the heads-up on the article. I'm trying to get a copy of that article. I found the Fungi Magazine archives but it only provides the first page of the article. I'll see if I can get the rest. I'll let you know how it turns out.

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