Fiona McIntosh joins some enthusiastic mycologists and mushroom lovers on a foraging experience in Western Cape forests…
Pictures: Shaen Adey and Ross Suter
It was Dick Peacock who got me into it. One wintery Sunday he phoned from Grabouw in a state of great excitement. “I’ve never seen so many porcinis,” he exclaimed. “We were driving down a 4×4 track when I spotted them on the edge of the Cape Pine Forest. There are mushrooms everywhere. Get in your car right now; you have to come and see this.”
I was busy but made a tentative arrangement to join him on a porcini hunt the following weekend. Sadly, when he did a recce on the Saturday morning the bloom was over; all that remained were a few dried specimens. “Pity,” said Dick. “We filled two wicker baskets last week. I sliced some and hung them up to dry. My friend’s going to send some over to her family in Italy. Hope the sniffer dogs don’t find them.”
Like many fungi collectors Dick is a forager by nature. “I haven’t been into the mountains so much since I lost my leg but I keep a wetsuit in my car and gather mussels and dive for crayfish. As a kid I had friends who lived in Oranjezicht. We used to gather pine rings in the forest behind their house. Then in 1975 I moved to Germany and had several friends who would go out into the forests near Freimann, on the outskirts of Munich, where I lived. There was a huge variety of mushrooms in that forest; lots of poisonous ones as well as edible ones like the bright yellow pfifferlings or chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius) that are common in Northern Europe.”
When he returned to South Africa he continued gathering mushrooms in the forests of Hout Bay and Tokai. “But it’s quite an art,” he confided. “You have to read the weather right. And of course distinguish between the good and the bad ‘guys’. I’m no expert so I always go with mates who are fundis. One of them claims that a good way to check whether a mushroom is edible or not is to cook it in a pan with garlic. If the garlic stays white then it’s ok. If it doesn’t don’t eat the fungi.”
Intrigued, I hopped into his sidecar a few days later and we headed out to Tokai for my first fungi-foraging adventure. It was so atmospheric and, to be honest, even if we hadn’t found any mushrooms I’d have been elated by the walk. The Peninsula had been lashed by rain and the early mist was rising as we wandered through the dank forest enjoying the dappled light, the smell of rotting wood, the tinkling of the stream and the bird call. We’d barely passed through the entrance gate when we found the first pine rings. But the porcinis remained elusive.
As so often happens, once my foraging feelers were tuned in I realised that quite a few of my other friends were also out there in the forests with their baskets. His regular postings on Facebook revealed a climbing friend, mountain guide Ross Suter, as another inveterate forager.
He offered a wealth of advice. The best places to find edible fungi apparently are in open grassy fields and among, and under, exotic trees such as pine, poplar, oak, and chestnut. The pine plantations in the Newlands and Tokai areas of the Cape Peninsula, and in Jonkershoek and Grabouw, are obviously the hotspots. Mushrooms are the fruit of the fungi root network growing in the soil or in tree trunks, and are linked to the root systems of these trees and surrounding grasses.
Ross explained that he was introduced to foraging for mushrooms during a Big Walk in the Tokai plantation. “One of the other fathers from my son’s school brought along a basket and he and his son started collecting pine rings as we walked,” he recalls. “My son and I joined the action and were given some important guidelines and pointers to follow before picking any mushrooms ourselves. We loved the foraging so much that I now forage not only for fungi, but for seasonal fruits, nuts, shoots, berries and leaves such as blackberries, cherry guavas, wild leeks, fennel, waterblommetjies and chestnuts.”
His main fungi crops are pine rings or saffron milk caps (Lactarius deliciosus), porcinis – known to the Brits as ‘penny buns’ (Boletus edulis), and chicken of the woods (Laetiporus sulphureus). “There’s also a variety of species of the Agaricus family, such as the common field mushroom (Agaricus campestris) and other fungi that are good to eat. These include the shaggy ink cap (Coprinus comatus) and the white (Macrolepiota zeyheri) and the shaggy (Macrolepiota rhacodes) parasols.”
For Ross, foraging is more than just collecting for the pot. “It gets me out and about, keeps me active, is a fantastic way of being in nature, of slowing down and awakening the senses.” He describes how empowering it is to have knowledge about his environment. “Particularly what can be used and eaten in the natural environment. There’s something very satisfying in going out into nature, engaging in ‘the silent hunt’ and returning with a supply of natural ingredients for the home, most typically for preparing and including in meals. There’s a strong connection back to times when humans were hunter-gatherers and lived off the land in its wild, uncultivated state. Even though I’m many generations away from any such times and endeavours, I feel it’s completely natural to be doing this foraging and gathering of fungi and plant life for sustenance. I have witnessed how many children connect with this too; they are thrilled to gather edible food ingredients from the natural world around them.”
Nora Sperling-Thiel, co-owner of Stellenbosch’s Delheim wine estate, shares these sentiments. “My mother taught me all about mushrooms, and from a young age I would go out and gather them on the farm. It’s such an exhilarating experience that I decided to organise a couple of Wild Mushroom Hunts on the estate so that enthusiasts could learn more about fungi and also enjoy what we have. Together with Gary Goldman, an enthusiastic mushroom expert and cultivator, who goes by the moniker Mushroom Guru, we take guests out in search of the elusive, seasonal delicacies. Gary’s an absolute fundi and a great teacher so at the end of the day we hope to inspire other foragers to learn more and become comfortable picking their own mushrooms.”
Armed with a wicker basket – one of the basic rules is that you mustn’t use plastic bags or buckets as the mushrooms need to breathe – and a knife, we headed for the pine forests on the farm. They smelt damp from the recent rain. We’d only gone a short distance down the dirt track when we spotted the first mushroom, the most beautiful porcini.
“Porcini means ‘little pig’ in Italian,” said Gary, pointing out the distinctive little pig’s tail of the picked specimen. Apparently they’re considered quite a find and have been known to reach up to 1.6kg, but we’re happy to settle for this healthy specimen that was the size of a fist.
Once we had our eyes in we spotted more and it wasn’t long before we had enough for a meal. Content, we returned to the cellar where the chopping boards came out and part two of our lesson began.
“Clean the mushrooms with a cloth or scrape them with a knife rather than wash them with water,” Gary instructed as he and Nora wiped and thinly sliced the beauties before popping them into various large pans on the wood stove. As we huddled around to warm up, they outlined a few basic ways to cook the mushrooms; some were sautéed in butter, some in garlic and one or two in highly prized truffle oil.
As Nora predicted, it was both satisfying and exciting. “Today the internet, as well as foraging classes and specialist guidebooks have brought mushroom hunting into mainstream foodie culture; there are even mushroom-identification smartphone apps,” she told us as she stirred the pan and a mouth-watering aroma filled the air.
“But for us it started six years ago. Delheim pioneered the now-popular fungi-foraging events in the country and has raised awareness of the potential for foraging for mushrooms in South Africa.”
As I toasted our host with a glass of the estate’s Pinotage Rosé, I realised that, for me too, foraging was deeply rewarding. The bug had bitten. I’m not sure that I’m ready to go down to the woods on my own yet, but my forays so far have certainly been a big surprise.
Foraging for Beginners
- Always ask for permission before you go foraging in conservation areas or those that are privately owned.
- Respect the environment. Be considerate and follow the ‘leave no trace’ approach.
- Before you start, make sure you understand enough about the habitats and the mushrooms themselves, either through expert tuition or through guided forays led by experts. Some of the most potent and deadly toxins on earth exist in certain species of fungus, so be very sure of what you are picking to take home to eat or it may be your last meal!
- Collect only mushrooms that you know. Don’t mix unknown mushrooms, or ones that you know are poisonous, with edible ones in your basket. Even the spore of toxic mushrooms can contaminate the ones you intend to eat.
- Don’t destroy mushrooms that you don’t know. All mushrooms have an ecological purpose.
- Avoid collecting fungi when it’s raining or immediately after rain. The mushrooms will have absorbed too much water and you will have either an unusable mess or the fungus will exude too much water and flavour when you cook it.
- Take a wicker basket in which to carry the harvested mushrooms. This prevents the mushrooms from sweating and helps spread the spores while you are walking.
- Collect only mature specimens, leaving the very young ones to grow on, and the old ones to decay in their natural habitat.
- Once you have found an area that has edible mushrooms growing in season, remember it for future seasons.
- Don’t tell too many people the specifics of where you have found good ‘crops’ of mushrooms, or there might be nothing left next time you visit.
- Don’t get lost. Seriously, it’s easy to get carried away when collecting in large woods or forests and lose your bearings. Take a map or GPS so that you can retrace your steps.
- Go armed with a mushroom knife to scrape the base of the stems (a pen knife is good), and a small brush to clean sand and dirt off the fungi before putting them in your basket.
In a Nutshell
- The first mushrooms appear when hot weather (temperatures of 28°C or more) follows the first big rains in the Cape.
- The Delheim Wild Mushroom Hunts usually take place around May and July. There are only 40 spots available per day so advance booking is essential.
- For guided fungi forays in the Western Cape visit www.mushroomguru.co.za or Cape Town-based mountain guide and intrepid forager Ross Suter, the owner of High Adventure CC.
- If you love fungi but don’t fancy foraging then a trip to Nouvelle Mushrooms might be just the ticket. This exotic mushroom farm in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley near Hermanus offers tours of the facility, which produces a range of fungi including shiitake, king oyster, white and brown shimeji and enoki mushrooms, followed by a six-course exotic mushroom canapés and wine pairing at nearby Creation Wines.