Cape Town - Welcome to the world of fungi foragers and mycologists. It’s a mysterious and magical place, with hunts taking place in damp forests for shy and elusive mushrooms that can be delicious to eat, or make you horribly ill.
Experienced foragers have their favourite spots, especially for the coveted king of mushrooms, the porcini, which attaches itself to a certain tree and continues to grow in that same place. Good luck trying to extract that information; I have heard of families that will disown children who reveal the secret.
It can take years to unearth your own porcini source. It can take almost as long simply to recognise edible mushrooms. Or any mushrooms, for that matter. They are often cunningly hidden and hard to see, except for the fairytale red and white spotted fly agaric, which boldly announces its presence.
Unfortunately, it will make you unpleasantly sick, and not even with the hallucinogenic benefit of magic mushrooms (these are found in the former Transkei, by the way). They do have a purpose, however. The clue is in the name. Collect them and dry them out to use in a saucer of milk as a fly killer. The downside of this is that they stink like rotting meat during the process.
There are mushrooms that look unpalatable, with a blue or green tinge, but are good to eat. Some are the same species, but appear completely different, depending on the stage of their growth. There are others that cannot be eaten raw. And yet others that shouldn’t be eaten when drinking wine. Some can even kill you.
All these things are important to know, which is why it is good to have someone like Gary Goldman, aka the Mushroom Guru, by your side.
The best time to pick mushrooms is after heavy rains, followed by warm weather. The moon plays a role too, according to Nora Sperling-Thiel, of Delheim in Stellenbosch, whose mother taught her everything she knows about the art of mushroom hunting when growing up on the farm. While neither Goldman nor Sperling-Thiel is going to lead you directly to the porcinis, there are opportunities to get in on the action. There are “official” events, but these are restricted to limited numbers and sell out weeks in advance, like the annual excursions at Delheim. But all is not lost; mushrooms can be found in many of our forests and Goldman will conduct a tour in any one you fancy. It’s a far better option than traipsing around on your own. Not only because the darn things are nearly invisible to the untrained eye, but because there are so many tiny differences between edible and inedible. That thing I said about them killing you? Not so much here in South Africa, but diarrhoea and other nasty side effects will probably make you wish you were dead.
The desired result is rather a pile of exotic wild mushrooms fried in garlic butter on top of crusty toast and drizzled with truffle oil, or a creamy mushroom risotto.
Delheim invited a group of us to give it a go, and it was a fascinating experience. Goldman is extremely knowledgeable, and can answer any question about mushrooms.
After a lecture on what is good and what is not, and how to pick a mushroom properly (with a knife; you do not yank it out of the ground), we headed for the hills. The day had been timed for there being the best chance of finding mushrooms, but there is never any guarantee they will co-operate. But Sperling-Thiel had been out the day before, and there were plenty.
Although the forages are already fully booked, you can still enjoy a mushroom menu at Delheim from Monday till next Sunday, with dishes made from the farm’s fungi. The lunch is available from 12.30 to 3.30pm, and costs R180 for three courses. Start with wild mushroom soup or baby spinach, goat’s cheese and shitake mushroom salad, followed by exotic mushroom tagliatelle or venison stew with pine ring mushrooms and couscous.
The dessert is mascarpone cheese cake – a signature recipe and ridiculously creamy and gorgeous. Finish with mushroom and apricot biscotti served with coffee or tea. - Weekend Argus
If You Go...