Ranked by National Geographic as being one of the most unique lodges in the world, Grootbos is a haven for tranquility seekers and nature lovers alike. Rich with fynbos and pockets of indigenous forest, I was recently invited to explore the prospects of mushroom foraging in and around the private nature reserve along with Executive Chef Benjamin Conradie and his team.
Grootbos emphasizes locally-sourced, organic produce and sustainability through its highly reputable culinary offering. An initiative established by the Grootbos Foundation known as the Growing the Future Project ensures that the herbs, eggs, honey, vegetables and more come from the reserve and make their way to the lodge’s kitchens. Good, responsible food plays a big part here and to dine at Grootbos is to get as fresh and as conservation-friendly as it gets. But let’s talk wild food. I already know via my circles that wild food forager Loubie Rusch had previously explored Grootbos with success – indigenous edibles such as veldkool were found in abundance here. But what about the mushrooms?
When talking mushroom foraging in a South African context visions of pine plantations and oak groves come to mind. But this is something different, and might I add something special. Special because what is found here is naturally-occurring and not introduced from the saplings of previous European settlers. Fungi species that require host trees in which to flourish (mycohorrizal) are not to be found here, but rather saprophytic forms that feed on dead and decaying matter.
So off we went, a group of 10 of us, into the one of the afro-temperate forest pockets to see what was on offer. We already knew that our adventure was very late in the conventional mushroom season, but that wasn’t going to stop us from getting an idea of how the environment could work during the peak mushroom gathering months of autumn to winter. Lush and dense, we followed the path deeper until we encountered our first edible fungi – the Common Ink Cap (Coprinopsis atramentaria). Although edible, the flavour is bland but of more concern is the extreme reaction these mushrooms have if alcohol is consumed within a few days either side of consuming. Moving on.
The next edible fungus we encountered was the Jelly Ear (Auricularia auricula-judae) – a peculiar looking fungus that resembles a wrinkly brown ear. Best used in broths as demonstrated throughout the centuries by various Asian cultures, we harvested a healthy bunch and into the basket they went. It wasn’t long before one of the chefs found a Field Mushroom (Agaricus campestris) and then another surprising find of the world-famous medicinal fungus Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) – albeit too old to harvest but interesting nonetheless.
Heading back to the lodge via safari vehicle was like a trip through wonderland. We passed through the most spectacular displays of fynbos including large stands of Fountain Bush (Psoralea pinnata) – to which one of our crew pointed out to me that the flowers smell just like grape soda! Or is it that grape soda smells like these flowers? Either way, I was bowled over by these scented flowers. The nether-region of the reserve looks spectacular with its golden hills of Dune Conebush (Leucadendron coniferum) and striking patches of Red Pincushion Protea (Leucospermum cordifolium).
Later that night we sat down to an exquisite meal prepared by Chef Benjamin & team, which included a special taster of a broth which incorporated the Jelly Ear fungus along with chopped herbs. Wonderfully umami and flavourful, it was a marriage of the wild flavours of Grootbos right there in the bowl.