In praise of the Bolivian mushroom: a rant

How hard can it be to grow mushrooms? The question is genuine because I don’t know and I don’t think I can eat another tinned mushroom without endangering the life of the chef who has unwisely sent out another plate of food with tinned mushrooms in it.

To put this into some sort of context. The human equivalent of a tinned mushroom is someone from a 1960s B-movie who has been taken over by a body snatcher. They look vaguely human but are completely alien and pose a major threat to human civilisation.

Tinned ‘mushrooms’, Sucre, Bolivia

Food is important, I love to cook, I love to eat. Five months of living in Bolivia and I can honestly say, with the exception of an occasional pint of Guinness, there is little in the way of home comforts that I’ve missed – although in my excitement I almost ate myself to death gorging on sushi in a bone fide Japanese restaurant in Santa Cruz called KEN (the best Japanese food I’ve ever had in Latin America).

The glaring exception to this state of affairs is the humble mushroom. I don’t mean to be flippant in a world where plenty of people struggle just to get enough calories each day, but the void of fresh mushrooms has wormed its way into my head and is eating (no pun intended) away at the part of my soul reserved for fresh mushrooms.

A real mushroom, Sucre, Bolivia

This realisation has crept up on me slowly but was forcefully imposed upon me when I recently found myself looking in despair upon a pizza with yet more tinned, salty and rubberised mushrooms nestling on top of fake mozzarella. It isn’t as if you can’t get pretty much every other vegetable known to humankind in Bolivia (although the courgette can be a bit tricky to find).

Asking the women who sell vegetables in Sucre’s Campesino Market they assured me that there was a woman who sold mushrooms a couple of aisles over, at the end of the row where the women sell rice, maize and quinoa. “Hongos frescas?” I asked. “Si, hongos frescas”, came the reply.

A few inquiries later revealed some dried mushrooms and yet more tinned mushrooms. The mushroom woman confirmed that in all her years of vegetable selling she had never seen a fresh mushroom. In fact, there was no such thing to be found in Bolivia.

Outraged, I asked around amongst Sucre’s expat bon viveurs: not true, I was told, fresh mushrooms are available very occasionally at the local SAS ‘supermarket’.  Unfortunately, not even the employees of SAS can tell you when they might be coming in and how long they might be available. Not exactly encouraging, but light at the end of the mushroom tunnel?

So yesterday, I was standing in the queue at the checkout in SAS and the woman in front of me had a pack of fresh mushrooms. Impossible. Absolutely impossible. I had just done a forensic sweep of the fruit and vegetable aisles, twice, and didn’t turn up a single mushroom. Restraining myself from ripping them from her hands, I politely enquired where she had found the mushrooms. The answer came back, “Next to the hotdog sausages in the fridge with cheese in it.”

Actual mushrooms in Sucre, Bolivia

Of course, why wouldn’t you keep the mushrooms in the cheese fridge next to the hotdogs?

I am now the proud owner not just of some fresh mushrooms, but also of some Portobello mushrooms. Only £5.40 for the lot!

Actual mushrooms in Sucre, Bolivia

I’m not sure whether to eat them or wait a couple of days and sell them at an inflated price. No, seriously, if my house had a bath I’d make mushroom soup and bathe in it.

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