Corn smut

Posted: Friday 19 September 2014
by Kate Bradbury

I have corn smut. Or rather, my sweetcorn has smut. It's a rare fungus that ruins corn, and yet everyone I’ve spoken to about it is jealous.


Corn smut

I have corn smut. Or rather, my sweetcorn has smut. Ustilago maydis is a rare fungus that ruins corn, and yet everyone I’ve spoken to about it is jealous.

I first noticed the smut last Monday, when I visited the allotment for a quick harvest. One sweetcorn cob was bulging, and poking out from the top were white, chestnut-shaped tumours apparently growing in place of the kernels. Initially I thought a mouse had moved in and made a nest, but then I decided it was aliens. I asked Twitter for help.

Twitter never fails to amaze me with its plethora of experts on hand, in this case to diagnose a rare fungus endemic to central Mexico. Within a couple of hours my fears of aliens had been replaced by pride in having something special and rare. It has quite a brilliant name to boot: corn smut. On my allotment.

Corn smut is, apparently, a Mexican delicacy revered since Aztec times, and goes by the nicer names of Mexican truffles, ‘food of the gods’ and huitlacoche. It has a unique earthy taste, somewhere between corn and mushrooms, and is normally fried with garlic and added to omelettes and quesadillas. It’s so in demand in Mexico that farmers there deliberately infect their corn with knives dipped in fungus-ridden soil.

But it looks hideous. My pride at having corn smut was soon again replaced with fear as I realised I would have to eat this thing – it would be rude to turn down a Mexican delicacy grown wild in the bowels of Tottenham. I searched the internet for recipes and wondered if I should add smut to an omelette or hide it in a cheesy quesadilla. In doing so I learned that eating smut with corn provides a more complex mix of amino acids, which is therefore better for you.

And then I found my corn smut had gone off. Mexican truffles are best eaten when young, while the fungus is spongy and has a blueish tinge. And they only stay like this for a few days. Mine was nothing like spongy or blue and, in poking about the truffles I revealed a black, powdery mildew-like fungus. It might be delicious, but I was rather pleased I’d missed my corn smut boat.





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