Nature alone is antique, and the oldest art a mushroom.
- Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus
The hunt for wild food continues, and this time we're searching the forest floor. On Saturday, I attended a mushroom forage offered by Veld and Sea and the Mushroom Forager, Justin Williams. We started the day with a brief introduction and a warning. "All mushrooms are edible, some only once", is but one of the many warnings we received throughout the day to remind us that positively identifying a mushroom before eating it is imperative. If you want to forage in a national park, you need to get a permit from Sanparks before grabbing your basket. Justin started foraging on the way to the event already, picking a giant porcini (Boletus Edulis) next to the highway. "When I start the day like this, I know it's going to be a great foraging day!" And it was! Our basket was filled to the brim by the end of the day, which meant that everyone got some wild mushrooms to take home and enjoy.
Carrying your mushrooms in a basket has a few advantages: the mushrooms keep on dropping spores after they're harvested so you assist in future propagation and the mushrooms can breath and retain their flavours better. Other than a basket or breathable bag, you will need a pocket knife to clean the mycelium from your mushroom stalk, a mushroom identification field guide and a keen eye.
Mushrooms can be grouped into three categories: Mycorrhizal mushrooms are in a symbiotic relationship with certain trees - the mycelium (the intelligent network of roots that actually make up the mushroom organism) assists with nutrient absorption of the trees, while the mushrooms flourish in the microclimate created by the tree. Examples include the popular porcini (Boletus Edulis) and the pine ring (Lactarius deliciosus). These mushrooms should rather be pulled up by the stem, as the mycelium network is large and won't be damaged by removing the entire stalk. Saprophytic mushrooms, on the other hand, grows in dead and decaying matter like decomposing leaves and tree trunks. The shaggy parasol (Chlorophyllum rhacodes) is an example,of which we found a giant lurking next to the road on the way to the foraging ground. The stem of saprophytic mushrooms should rather be cut than pulled out, as they don't have such an extensive mycelium network and you want to disturb it as little as possible. Parasitic mushrooms, the final category, live on a living host, eventually killing it. An example is chicken of the woods (Laetiporus sulphureus), a type of bracket fungus that tastes very similar to chicken!
Most of the edible mushrooms harvested in the western cape are not indigenous. When the Dutch imported bales of pines and oaks to propagate on the southern slopes of Table Mountain, they unwittingly imported the spores of european edible mushrooms as well and these have since been silently sprouting in Newlands, Cecilia and Tokai forests.
Once you start delving into the fascinating world of fungi, you quickly realise why people like Justin are so enamoured by it. (A great introduction is the BBC documentary titled The magic of mushrooms). Mycelium networks are considered intelligent 'information highways', and can be incomprehensibly large underground structures. The largest living organism on earth is considered to be a honey fungus in Oregon, measuring a staggering 3,8km across! The small edible we know as a 'mushroom' is really only the fruiting body of the entire mycelium organism, and can sprout and grow to an astonishing size in only a day. Searching for these little delights immediately immerses you in your environment: the serenity of the forest and the patience required to scout the surface for an almost indiscernible bump in the carpet of pine needles is a truly grounding exercise. Similar to fly fishing, the better your understanding of the local habitat the more successful your hunt will be. Fungi grow in the shade, so southern slopes are more likely to sprout mushrooms, and the best time is a window of warm weather after some rainfall. Eventually, you learn to simply follow your nose for the nutty, earthy aroma exuded by the porcini.
Porcinis are considered to be one of the most valuable finds in edible mushrooms, and are easily identifiable by the brown stalk and cap and white to yellow sponge underneath. Its name ('little pig' in Italian) suits its porky shape, and it is full of umami flavour, brought to life when simply fried in butter and enjoyed on toast. The sponge underneath is actually a network of miniature tubes that produce and drop microscopic spores, and when fried has a texture reminiscent of scrambled eggs, which is why it is mostly removed before cooking.
The other coveted species is the pine ring, identified by the tree-like rings on the cap, bright orange colour and hollow stem. Pine rings have a crunchy texture and are best enjoyed pickled. For more information on identification of edible species, have a look at Justin's website mushlove.co.za.
One of the most abundant species of mushroom to be found in Newlands forest is the cape russula (Russula capensis), easily identifiable by its deep purple cap and white gills. White gills are the first warning sign to look out for in poisonous mushrooms, even though the russula is considered edible. There have been instances where people have become ill after eating it, so consume with caution!
Probably the most noticeable wild mushroom is the fly agaric (Amanita muscaria), the stereotypical toadstool: bright red with white spots, you can easily imagine a little gnome cheekily perched on top. This type of fungus is a known hallucinogenic mushroom, but can create a very unpleasant drunk and dizzy feeling when consumed. In this case, let the bright ruby colour serve as a warning before you start eating. A deadly variety to look out for is the panther cap (Amanita pantherina) that can cause acute liver failure and can kill you within a day or two of consuming it.
After collecting a big basket full of pungent wild mushrooms, we enjoyed a mushroom inspired picnic prepared by Roushanna Gray of Veld and Sea. We started off with a Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor) tea packed with antioxidants, followed by a hearty soup and ciabatta covered in porcini pâté. We will be joining Roushanna again for a Fynbos forage in July, so watch this space!
A last disclaimer: learning to sustain yourself with wild food is an exciting endeavour, but it is important to know that positive identification of any plant before consumption is critical. No information from this article should be considered as advice on which mushrooms are safe to eat, and you should always consult an expert (you can submit mushroom identification at The Mushroom Guru here).
That being said: attend a course with Justin or The Mushroom Guru, grab your boots and basket and head to the forest. You might leave with much more than you bargained for: a meal, a restored soul and a clear mind, because the great advantage of foraging for food is that it reconnects you to the beautiful landscape that sustains us in so many more ways than simply providing nourishment for our bodies.