If you venture into dark, damp and mulchy places during the coldest winter months, your exploits may be rewarded with the meeting of a Wood Blewit, one of the finest wild edible mushrooms to be found in South Africa. In terms of edibility it is a choice edible and tastes quite fantastic if prepared correctly.
As far as etymology goes, the Latin name for the Wood Blewit is Clitocybe nuda, but historically been referred to as Lepista nuda. Lepista is derived from Latin and means a wine pitcher or a goblet, and when fully mature the caps of Lepista species do indeed become concave like shallow chalices or goblets. Nuda, as much as it sounds, simply means bare or naked.
Identifying the Wood Blewit is not a difficult task, but let’s firstly take a look at the habitat of this fungus. Wood Blewits are saprophytic mushrooms, meaning that they are decomposers of the forest floor. Dead and decaying matter is gobbled up by the mycelium of these mushrooms, with the output being healthy soil. So not only are Wood Blewits very tasty, but they have a very important role to play in the upkeep of the forest too. This is a wonderful natural cycle that points to their preferred habitat – leaf litter. I find that Wood Blewits love dark places where not too much sun penetrates, areas that are damp and rich with mulch where introduced trees such as Poplar, Oak and Eucalyptus are to be found. They also love growing under bramble hedgerows. Recently a friend from the Overberg and I spent a day battling the sharp branches of brambles to get to these mushrooms. The multiple scratches on our arms were our proud battle scars.
Seeing as that Wood Blewits will only begin to ‘fruit’ at around 8 degrees Celsius, the best time to go looking for them (if you’re in South Africa) is generally during the cold snaps from late June to early August.
These lilac-coloured mushrooms smell absolutely heavenly, a bit sweet and floral. Mushroom expert David Arora compares the scent to ‘frozen orange juice’ while some others say wine gums. I find the odour to be a bit comparable to lavender. When stumbling upon a mushroom which I believe to be a Wood Blewit, I always first cut them out of the ground (never yank Wood Blewits) and raise them to my nose. If the scent checks out I look at the lilac hue all over the mushroom. As they get a bit older the caps open outward and the fungi tend to turn a light buff and then brown colour. Do not eat them when found at the latter stage – rather stick to young, fresh and vibrant-coloured specimens.
One poisonous mushroom that could be mistaken for a Wood Blewit is the slimy purple Cortinarius archeri. Taking a spore print of these darker purple-coloured mushrooms will reveal a dark rust colour unlike Wood Blewits, which are cream to a light tan buff. Fortunately I have not heard of the sinister Blewit lookalikes popping up in & around Cape Town, but I have been sent a photo of one which was found near Hogsback in the Eastern Cape. It is very unlikely to find them in Cape Town but precaution is always advised in any case. Take a spore print with your first few Wood Blewits to familiarize yourself with them and you cannot go wrong.
Eating Wood Blewits is a treat. I find that no garlic should be used with them as this detracts away from their subtle flavour. Rather go ahead with the French method and that is plenty of wine, tarragon, leeks and onions. Texture-wise they are similar to the store-bought Portobello variety but with a much better flavour. Wood Blewits can be used in any recipe that calls for the use of button mushrooms. Just remember to cook them thoroughly as they can be toxic if eaten raw. This is very important.