This year I got to be part of a fun project: remote teaching about mushrooms with Villagers in Mali through Winrock International and USAID, with a special thanks due to my dear friend Judy Moses of Shepherd Song Farm, whose idea it was to figure out how to keep their Farmer to Farmer outreach program going during the pandemic. Originally, our idea was to fly me out to Ethiopia or Mali to document things with images, and we’ll hopefully be able to do that in the future, but it will have to wait until travel gets back to normal and vaccines are readily available.
USAID Farmer to Farmer Program
USAID’s Farmer to Farmer program works to connect volunteer specialists in different areas that could be helpful to Malians. My friend Judy Moses has, for a number of years now, been one of those specialists. Judy and her husband Larry raise the finest grass-fed lamb and goat I’ve tasted over in Downing WI, and they use regenerative agriculture practices in their farming. The finer points of regenerative agriculture and small ruminant husbandry are what they share with the villagers in Mali, and for Judy, It’s a passion project (she also works in Nepal).
The Farmer to Farmer programs has also a mushroom course that’s been in the works that teaches Malians how to grow mushrooms as a low-input, high-output cash and food crop, and that’s where I came in. Thinking of different ways I could contribute, we settled on a few quick video tutorials, including my personal favorite: pickled mushrooms.
Mushroom Questions for Malians
Our contact on the ground was a woman named Madame Thera, who is writing her dissertation on Ectomycorrhizal and Ethnomycological relationships in West Africa, and is also the point person for the mushroom growing tutorials.
What is the general process for growing mushrooms in Mali? What kinds are grown?
“In Mali mushroom are grown in field or in mushroom house: In field it s grown under shade with adapted irrigation system; in mushroom house we use substrate (Agri residues) in bag”
Do you cook mushrooms before you were shown how to grow them? If so, how do you prepare them?
“Yes; I cook as stir-fry with vegetables; in soup or with fresh cream; but in villages they use as meat, in sauce or just fried”
How are wild and cultivated mushrooms preserved?
Do you teach others how to grow mushrooms now, or does that only happen with the Winrock volunteers?
“We just had a training session in mushroom production 2 weeks before the training on Pickled Mushrooms preparation”
Questions from American Mushroom Hunters and Growers
Are there any specific Malian mushroom dishes?
“Sauce to accompany the traditional dish called “To””
Is it common to hunt mushrooms in Mali?
“Women in raining season as food supplement.”
Do you have any stories about mushrooms or folklore in your community?
“When you talk about mushroom, it can be fear to intoxication; but it can be also mystic, protection or traditional medicinal use”
What is your favorite mushroom?
“Bottom mushroom and termitomyces for the wild” Alan’s note: I assume Agaricus bisporus here.
Do you eat mushrooms for medicinal purposes at all? If so, what for?
“Yes Ganoderma sp, turkey tail as tea (immune system and inflammation)”
Is it exciting to find wild mushrooms?
“Yes, it is my passion and it makes me crazy each time I find a new species”
Do Malians harvest any wild plants? Nuts, seeds, etc? If so how are they used?
“A lot: to make butter, oil, juice, tea, medicinal, soap, spices, food etc…..”
After we went through the demonstration of my pickled mushroom recipe, which Madame Thera had planned so well, especially considering some space and ingredient contraints. I fielded a few questions. Most were relatively simple.
The pickled wild mushroom preserves I tell everyone to make can be canned in a waterbath, but, in Mali, I assumed that dedicating the amount of water needed to cook jars might be expensive, hard to come by, difficult to set up, or a combination of everything. Luckily, the preserve has a low enough pH that if you pour it into a jar boiling, (see video) and turn it upside down, will hermetically seal just like if you used a water bath. Of course, I went over best practices like sterilizing jars with high heat or steam, too.
Kanni, the Shea Caterpillar
To be honest, It was hard to gauge interest with our communication set up, but after the translation of how long low pH foods can last in the recipe I outlined, I could hear audible gasps from the women. That, right there, made the whole project worth it.
From there, it only took a second for them to discuss amongst themselves and ask me if they could use the process for similar things, which I said they could assuming there was enough liquid. The culinary item in question: grubs/caterpillars from the Shea tree. A new one for me, but totally understandable as they’re a solid source of nutrition. Apparently the caterpillars are a very popular food source in the area, and a quick google (I selected some links below) will tell you more.