Shopping for fruit and veg in the Solomon Islands couldn’t be easier; most days I don’t even have to leave the cockpit. Outside urban centres like Honiara and Gizo (where there are stores and fresh markets and people have jobs that pay money) we almost never go ashore for fresh goods. Guaranteed sometime during the day at least one local will paddle up silently in their dugout canoe with local fruits and veggies they want to unload. Sometimes people want money, but more often than not they are looking to trade.
In our month in the Solomon’s I have “purchased” coconuts, oranges, papaya, bananas, pineapples, limes, chilies, fresh eggs, fern cabbage, long green beans, tomatoes, eggplants and sweet potatoes over the lifelines. As for trade items it has ranged from downloading music onto a young man’s phone to second hand clothes to a bag of salt. Fishing line and hooks are popular with the young boys while hair elastics and barrettes are a winner with the girls.
The other day, while we were enjoying the late afternoon calm and quiet of the Laipari lagoon a woman named Pauline arrived with few edible trade items.
Including a surprise; a large bowl of mushrooms she had just collected in the forest.
This was a surprise because I haven’t seen mushrooms for months, not in the supermarkets, not in the fresh markets, not even growing in the underbrush when we’ve been ashore for a walk. But these mushrooms, besides being huge, were firm, fresh and typically mushroom coloured and shaped. She said that they grow at the base of the sago palms and have come out since the rain we had at New Years.
Now, some of you might think that buying unidentified mushrooms from some random woman in a canoe in a far flung island nation a bad idea. And I would tend to agree with you, especially since I do not particularly like mushrooms, but when food arrives at my doorstep that fresh – literally moments from being harvested – I have a hard time turning it down.
Pauline’s English was quiet good so I felt confident she actually meant “yes” when I ask if she ate them herself. (Lots of people will answer a question yes when they don’t even understand what you’ve asked them.) She was smiley and polite and kept both herself and her two young boys she had with her tidy. Her teeth were not stained red from chewing bettlenut and she didn’t have a crazed look in her eye. I decided she seemed like a trust worthy guide on this culinary adventure.
I traded Pauline a sewing kit for half her giant bowl of mushrooms and then watched as she paddled to the only other boat in the anchorage where she was relieved of the rest of her haul. I figured it was a good sign that other people thought her mushrooms edible, or at least I would be in good company if the whole experiment went terribly bad.
Over the years I have served and eaten all types of mushrooms.
In soups, in sauces, raw on a salad and marinated in oil. I have tried button and portabello, shitaki and enoki, oyster, straw and cremini. Although I have definitely learned to appreciate the merits of their flavours in certain dishes I am not a person who would ever crave, order or buy fungus.
I already had dinner plans so I decided that I would simply dice and sautee the biggest mushrooms in a little butter and hope for the best. I knew that Steve would eat them if nothing else but I was determined to have a mouthful; who knows I might not hate them and at least then I couldn’t get accused of trying to poison him.
My first bite was tentative but not unpleasant.
There was no slimy mouth feel, no grit or woody texture. They were soft but chewy. I took a second fork full and I actually liked the taste. They were everything people had raved about for all those years, everything I had been looking for in a mushroom and never found. Much to my surprise I scoffed down my whole portion and was eyeing off the heap on Steve’s plate too. They were so good I declared that we needed to find Pauline in the morning and get some more.
Thankfully we woke the next morning having suffered no ill effects, although I was sure to tell Steve that I loved him twice before we fell asleep and asked him to check that I was still breathing periodically throughout the night (which he swears he did). We did find Pauline again, twice, and got more mushrooms. This time I took the whole bowl full.
We had them on top of steak one night and I made a lovely mushroom sauce for pasta the next, but my favourite has been a simple breakfast of mushrooms sautéed in butter with garlic and herbs de provence served on slices of toasted yogurt herb bread. Simple. Elegant. Delicious.
We left Laipari last week and haven’t seen mushrooms since but we are planning on going back to visit before we head further west in a few months. I am hoping to find Pauline again and this time, not only trade for some of her mushrooms, but maybe convince her to take me on a trip into the forest to find them.
Until then we are waiting for the canoe to arrive to take us on another local culinary adventure.
Wild Solomon Island Mushrooms on Toasted Yogurt Herb Bread
Brush and clean the mushrooms free of debris and grit. Rough dice mushrooms, including stems. Place a heavy bottom pan over high heat, add a tablespoon of olive oil and a knob of butter and swirl pan until melted. Add to pan 2 cloves of garlic finely minced and sauté until fragrant and slightly translucent, a minute or two. Add mushrooms and heat quickly until they just go limp and start to sweat. Rub a generous teaspoon on herbs de provence between your palms and add to pan, stirring gently until incorporated. Turn off heat, add salt and fresh black pepper to taste. Serve immediately heaped on crispy, dark toasted yogurt herb bread. Enjoy!
*You can use any edible mushrooms, of course.
*To make a pasta sauce add a finely minced onion before garlic and saute until soft. In the end deglaze pan with a generous glug of good white wine to make a bit of a sauce, can also add a splash of cream and heat until slightly thickened. Serve over pasta shells with a good shake of parmesan cheese for added body.