The search for one of those magical red mushrooms with the white dots, so abundant in my childhood picture books, eventually leads me to the forest below Table Mountain.
There are plenty of excursions available to learn how to identify and pick mushrooms, but it was a struggle to get someone to go with me in search of my magical mushroom. I came across Gary Goldman, the Mushroom Guru in Cape Town, and he explained that these types of mushrooms appear about two weeks after the first winter rains and only in temperatures between 12° and 35° Celsius.
His speciality is searching and finding porcini, which, according to him, is the tastiest of all kinds, and to train beginners in the search for mushrooms. He has also co-written a field guide on Mushrooms and other fungi of South Africa with Marieke Gryzenhout.
I met him and his two dogs in the Cecilia forest parking lot and he tells me that just over 100 of the 100,000 species in the world are deadly poisonous, and only four of them are identified in South Africa.
The toxic species usually have a bad smell and taste sour or sharp. “There’s a saying that all mushrooms are edible, but some just once!” He warns.
While I was crawling around on my stomach to get the best angle to try to take pictures of the fairies under the mushrooms, Gary looked for edible species and shared quite a few facts. Squirrels also love eating mushrooms and being forest dwellers, they are often first to nibble the largest and most delicious mushrooms.
It's good forest etiquette not to harvest all the mushrooms you see, leave some for other hunters and animals. It’s also important that some are left behind, to scatter spores that will provide for another season’s harvest.
The button mushrooms (Agaricus Bisporus) freely available on the shelves in our stores have only two different traces on the basidium - the fan-like fins underneath - while wild mushrooms have between four and eight traces with an earthy fragrance, described by food experts as umami.
I also learn not to cut the stem just above the ground, a large portion is under the ground and the portion protruding above is just the maturing/growing section. If a piece remains, it will decay and smell like rotten meat and all the other fruit in that area will die. For a period of four to six weeks, nothing will grow here. The right way is to pull out the whole mushroom and gently tighten the hole formed.
Between the pine needles of the forest floor, we talk about myths that have evolved around mushrooms over the centuries.
Experts believe that hallucinogenic properties have been used by northern European shamans and religious leaders because it contains two substances that reduce the body's response to anxiety. This is also the reason why it was used by warriors before they went to war. After our outing, Gary offers me some of the edible mushrooms from his harvest and says I should eat it as soon as possible, it is a living organism and other things will grow on it.
Stored in a paper bag or shoe box, the oyster species can keep for two days and the porcini for up to four days.
In a separate bag he gives me a few of the Fly Agarics, and tells me to cut them into slices of about 5 cm thick, let it dry in the sun and store it in a tin in my freezer, if there is a bothersome fly or ten around my next braai, I only have to soak a piece in a saucer and I have homemade, organic fly poison!
The best way to clean mushrooms is to gently dust off the organic material with a brush if it does not work, try to wipe it with a damp cloth, and in the last instance, use a sharp knife to cut off a piece.
Fresh mushrooms contain about 98% water and do not freeze very well, but once cooked, they freeze well.