THE PRINCE OF MUSHROOMS – AGARICUS AUGUSTUS

The Prince mushroom is every mushroom hunter’s delight. They are rare, very rare it would appear, especially in Cape Town, and up until last month had it previously eluded even my most meticulous attempts to locate one.

So what’s the big deal about this mushroom? Pure eating enjoyment. They say that the almond/marzipan flavour it gives off is quite incredible – ranked as one of the best wild gourmet mushrooms – if you can find it! The name itself evokes something special. Agaricus augustus, is its botanical name, with the epithet augustus a Latin adjective meaning ‘noble’.

One of my mycological heroes, the late Edith Stephens, described the ‘Noble mushroom’ (Psalliota nobilis – as it was previously known) as being occasionally found on the Cape Peninsula mountains from Tokai to Llandudno. Well, many hours spent hiking and countless breathtaking views later, I was still none the wiser. From Vlakkenberg to Elephant’s Eye to Constantia Nek I wandered, in search of this elusive treasure. Frustrated but not admitting defeat, I remembered that this is what mushroom hunting is all about. Commitment, dedication and time.

 

Psalliota nobilis – identified by Edith Stephens and illustrated by Mary Maytham Kidd in 1952.

 

Then one afternoon I found myself at a Tweede Nuwe Jaar lunch to usher in the new year, at the lovely family residence of Marie Viljoen. What a fantastic lunch that was, worthy enough of an article by itself. It must have been fate though, because at the table I met a wonderful soul named Karen who told me about a patch of striking mushrooms which had popped up in her garden following a spell of December rain. I scanned the photos and they looked familiar… pink-to-brown gills, speckled caps with a noticeable veil. Agaricus species, but which one? Feeling curious and excited, but not wanting to jump to conclusions, I asked Karen if I could investigate them further if they showed face again.

Lo and behold, two weeks later, I got a message from Karen saying that the mystery mushrooms had once again popped up following a generous dousing from the property’s borehole water. Into the garden I walked, down the path and then there it was – under a large pin oak atop a well-composted patch of mulch it lay, a sizable, tawny-brown mushroom that was unmistakable at first sight. I had found my first Prince!

 

My first Prince.

 

Dropping to my knees, I investigated it thoroughly as if it was an alien of some sort. The pinkish-brown gills, the large cap speckled in that tell-tale Agaricus augustus pattern, the veil remnants. It was perfect. But even more perfect was the fact that there were four more Prince mushroom ‘buttons’ popping up all around the solitary maturing specimen, as well as another with its cap already open.

All those hours spent trekking the mountains, all those lessons. And now here it was. To be fair the find wasn’t that of my own, but rather thanks to Karen for her keen eyes and to Marie for bringing us together. I harvested the biggest and took two more, in anticipation to see what happens next. That night they were fried gently in butter and savoured on their own – I was absolutely gobsmacked by the intense almond/marzipan aroma that appears a short moment after hitting a hot pan. The flavour is best described as a meaty Portobello which has been drenched in almond essence – this is a mushroom so sweet that it wouldn’t be out of place when used in a dessert dish.

 

A couple Prince mushrooms and a very happy forager.

 

More rain came a few days later, a good 20mm, and so came more Prince mushrooms. Seven more popped up in the space of two weeks, appearing three days after the rain with temperatures in the mid-twenties. This was obviously a reason to celebrate, and Marie hadn’t yet left to go back to the USA, so myself, Bev, Karen and Marie enjoyed a few G&T’s in the garden to mark this special occasion (read Marie’s post here about our mushroom garden party).

 

The garden party with our special guests.

 

That night it was soup. I prepared a classic, old-style mushroom soup by whipping up a roux with butter and flour in the one pan. In another pan the mushrooms were chopped and sauteed with shallots. Eventually they were added to the roux with a dash of cream and left to simmer for a few minutes. A sprinkle of nutmeg and we were good to go. The result? The best mushroom soup I have ever tasted. Sweet, but not overbearing. A creamy amalgamation of almond and mushroom in a bowl. What magic.

 

Prince mushroom soup

 

For future endeavours, I’ll be checking back with Karen to see how the patch is doing. But now I feel confident about setting out to find the Prince mushroom in the wild, armed with knowledge about how exactly they grow and what they prefer. My friend Hanko, the young and knowledgeable mushroom man of Greyton, has found them growing on a rich, mulchy compost heap not far from his foraging grounds. From what field guides and literature suggests, they enjoy disturbed patches of land, rich with mulchy soil or compost. Shaded, leafy patches in urban areas, sometimes under pines, although they do not require a mycohorrizal relationship with this tree. Warm temperatures is a must, so summer-to-autumn is a good time to looking.

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