All about fungi

Tuesday November 10th saw the Food Appreciation Group meeting to discuss and learn about fungi, something we have all seen specimens of but which, if you are like us, will discover that you know very little about. They are an incredibly diverse and utterly fascinating species inhabiting our earth, no doubt about it. Fungi live everywhere including Antarctica, forests, deserts, jungles, and even on and inside us.

Fungi are such important organisms and so distinct from plants and animals that in 1969 they were allotted a ‘kingdom’ of their own in our ‘classifications of life on earth’ and even though we may think they are quite like plants in that neither of them move, biologically they are actually more like animals.

Most people tend to think of things like mushrooms, toadstools and puffballs as being fungi but these are actually only the reproductive parts of certain types of fungi. Most fungi live underground or in wood or leaves as a spreading network of fine tube-like filaments called hyphae which continue to grow as they seek nutrients, eventually forming a cobweb type structure known as a mycelium and this is the body of the fungus. In Northern America just one of these underground mycelium bodies has been tracked and amazed scientists who discovered that is spread over hundreds of hectares. That is quite phenomenal.

As they can’t produce their own food by photosynthesis fungi have to gain nutrients from the material they live on or that surrounds them. Many have a symbiotic relationship with plants but there are also some which are parasitic and can cause damage or disease to the organisms they live on. In humans, a couple of examples would be tinea and ringworm.

Some fungi are deliciously edible but you really need to be sure of your identification before eating them as there are those that can produce very nasty side effects and even, in extreme cases, death. In fact, in France in AD944, there was an estimated 40,000 people died after eating rye bread which had been infected with the ergot fungus which is very toxic if ingested. At the time it was thought to be due to a plague as those that sought refuge in convents and monasteries survived. However, the telling difference was that the nuns and the monks made their bread with wheat flour instead of rye flour but it would be many years until this was realized as the reason for their not succumbing.

But if you do want to cook with these delicious morsels and yet not be struck down by the perils of eating the wrong ones there are a couple of web sites, developed by Landcare Research, that are brilliant for helping you identify what you have picked and are now wondering if they are safe to eat. They are ‘The Fungal Guide’, and ‘Virtual Mycota.’ The NZ Poison’s Centre also have some posters people can download to educate themselves and others about which mushrooms are edible and which are not.

Traditionally the Maoris ate a few of our native fungal species but not many. Today we tend not to be a nation of mushroom gatherers but opt to purchase all our edible fungi from either Farmers Markets or the shops. Variety, until very recently, has been quite limited but we are now seeing more types becoming available. Little gems such as shiitakes, maitakes, wood ear, oyster, flat, porcini, portabello, button, trumpet, chanterelles and morels are all providing the keen cook with a whole lot of new tastes and textures to explore and also lead us into the world of many different cultures and their varied cuisines. Along with the joy of discovering their flavours and textures they are also a powerhouse of nutrients and goodness. So next time you are out shopping and thinking of buying some mushrooms don’t just stop at the little button ones you usually put in your trolley. See what else is on offer and try some you haven’t had before – they might just be the highlight of your week! And if you ever happen to travel and be lucky enough to go to Lisbon there is a restaurant there that serves only mushroom dishes (yes, including desert ones.) Wouldn’t that be something amazing to have added to your bucket list:)

Our talk on fungi was both lively and fascinating and I have covered only a very small amount of what we learned but I am sure it is enough for you to start having an appreciation for how amazing they are. We are only just beginning to understand how vast they are and how very integrated and essential they are to our ecosystems.

Our wild card items at this meeting were, as usual, diverse and great fun to have as presentations. They included an article on stevia which produced much discussion as a sugar substitute in both the home and in manufacturing, a dish brought back from Borneo that had been made with the cinnamon plant and still had the lingering scent of the spice adhering to it, and a ‘plane table’ which is a very old survey tool used out on the field for plotting sites. It was a table such as this that Captain Cook, as a young boy in England, had come across when he was out in the countryside, and fascinated by the concept of how it worked became a master in its use. The skills he learned doing this enabled him to become the brilliant master of cartography that he was and gave us the maps of the new worlds that he was discovering as he sailed the oceans.

Isn’t life wonderful? You never know when you wake up in the morning what you will learn before you go to bed that night

Our next meeting will be on Tuesday December 8th and our topic will be Personal Xmas Food Memories. We will also all be bringing along a small dish of something delicious to share for a xmas morning tea.

If you have any queries about this group or wish to join contact Pauline from the Food Appreciation Group page.

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