Tuesday, August 23, 2005

A Smutty Story

The day I get around to writing my definitive work on wild food, I’m going to include a bit of smut.

We’re talking corn smut of course, a unique fungus that grows through corn kernels and invades the corn cob in an uncontrolled mass of silvery-black lobes.

Corn smut (Ustilago maydis) occurs on corn (maize) all over the world. For most farmers it’s a weird, undesirable parasite, to be destroyed or fed to the pigs. Syngenta, the Swiss-based multinational crop protection company, devotes time and money to researching how best to breed corn for resistance to the fungus. Only the Mexicans treasure it as a delicacy, a taste that originated with their ancient Mesoamerican peoples and one which has endured to this day.

If you’ve ever visited a Mexican market in the rainy season (Europe’s summer months), you’ll have spotted corn smut. It’s known as huitlacoche (sometimes spelt cuitlacoche), and it’s sold on vegetable stalls, along with the corn cobs that play host to it. A seasonal delicacy, it is shaved off the cobs, chopped up, fried with onion, garlic, green chiles and epazote (Mexican wormseed) and made into inky-black soups, or used to fill tortillas, crêpes or chiles poblanos. Margarita, who cooks memorable food for my friend in Cuernavaca, does a gorgeous baroque dish in which the creamed fungus is set in a nest of fine noodles.

When I came back to Europe after 7 years in Mexico, I’d resigned myself to the fact that certain familiar treats would no longer feature in our lives – piñatas at birthday parties, mariachis at dawn, and huitlacoche in the rainy season.

Imagine my delight when, back in suburban Switzerland, I found the fungus growing on the corn just up behind our house. I showed it to the farmer and checked that he didn’t mind if I helped myself. He eyed me with undisguised horror, shrugged his shoulders, then grunted his assent. I sliced it off the cobs with my Swiss Army penknife, bore it off home, chopped it up, softened some onion and garlic and fried the fungus till the black juices writhed. Then I rolled it up in some crêpes, sat back, closed my eyes and took a bite. I could almost have been back in Mexico.

Now we’re across the border in Alsace, the corn stands as high as an elephant’s eye and there’s my corn smut again. Today, out walking, I had a fabulous huitlacoche harvest and made another feast, fit for a Mesoamerican god.

copyright Sue Style 2005