Titan of the Forest
Once upon a time, there was a young family who went to live in Africa. Their new home was in the middle of a National Park called North Luangwa, in Zambia. Their house was made of stone and thatch, fat geckos climbed the walls (and bit human fingers), and elephants visited the grounds. Other animals came and went freely; lions and leopards left their pug marks, black rhinos their clover leaf footprints, and guinea fowl their tracks, like treasure trail arrows.
Beyond the camp, as far as the eye could see, stretched miles and miles of woodland. A special kind of low, dense forest called miombo. And at the start of the rainy season, in late November and December, giant mushrooms would sprout and flourish there...
I would have liked to continue this fairy tale by describing how, one day, the son and the daughter ventured into the forest on their own to forage for the hugest of the giant mushrooms… but that would be a tall tale. In fact, at the time our kids were only about one and three years old respectively. No, the wild mushroom in the photo below was purchased by my husband on the road from Lusaka, for the princely sum of 5000 Kwacha, or US$ 1.6. He bought the fleshy delicacy from two local boys, perhaps 9 or 10 years old. The boys had found and harvested it themselves. Just imagine them coming across this feast, larger than a family-sized pizza, nestling among the damp leaf litter… And no, they didn’t mention meeting a hookah-smoking Caterpillar :-)
The cap of Termitomyces titanicus (known, I’m told, as icikolowa in Bemba), may reach one metre in diameter and is reputed to be the largest edible mushroom in the world (can you doubt it?). It is obligately symbiotic with termites of the subfamily Macrotermitinae, meaning that both the fungus and the termites depend entirely on each other for survival. The termites grow the mycelium on comb-like structures made from faecal pellets, much like leafcutter ants cultivate their fungi in subterranean gardens.
After being ooh-ed and aah-ed over by my family, this fine specimen found its way to the camp kitchen where it was chopped into pieces, prepared as a delicious stew, and served with beer and nshima (a maize meal staple) to no fewer than twenty people.
A fitting end for a titanic mushroom.