Mushrooms. The mysterious growths which may pop up one morning and be gone the next. How did they get there? And are they edible?
This is a website about learning how to safely pick the wild mushrooms growing around South Africa. It is also a blog that tracks my insatiable quest to track down finest wild edible mushrooms around Southern Africa.
Fungi are all kinds of fun, guys. Yes, some of them can take you to some pretty extraordinary places, but my focus really lies with mushrooms in the culinary sense. They’re superfood and they’re a super food. No animals are harmed when you are tracking down a tasty morsel in the woods. This activity is actually a lot of fun.
My history with mushrooms starts as a 10-year old in 1997. For my birthday, my parents bought me a South African book of the road that included an illustrated checklist of local fauna and flora. As a life-long nature lover, I was particularly interested in the mushroom section, as we often had these conical, fluffy white mushrooms pop up in the garden every so often. I now know these to be Shaggy Ink Caps, or Shaggy Manes to my counterparts in the northern hemisphere, an edible mushroom that is actually commonly misunderstood to be toxic when consumed with alcohol, but my fascination with wild mushrooms began when I managed to positively identify and try a little taste of these garden-dwelling fungi, undoubtedly with a lot of hesitation.
A few months later, my father, a coastline forager, diver and fisherman himself, took us out to the Tokai Arboretum where we filled a bag with mushrooms from under the pines which we believed were edible. Thank goodness we referred to a library-borrowed guide book upon our return home before eating them all, as we soon discovered that not a single one of these mushrooms were edible. In fact, there were some pretty nasty contenders in the basket that day.
During those early days there were no experienced guides to go out into the forest with, nor was internet access readily available to learn more. I spent a considerable amount of hours as a youth pawing my way through whichever mushroom and nature books I could my hands on, but then began my teen years and my love for mushrooms somewhat subsided.
But then it was in 2012 when my passion for fungi was rekindled. Walking in Newlands forest, I stumbled upon a beautiful fresh porcini mushroom and was immediately taken back to my younger years when I had felt so curious about picking wild mushrooms and eating them. It was exactly like the porcini mushrooms which used to come up on the pine-clad slopes of Noordhoek nearly two decades ago. This was a mushroom I could identify at a glance from my earlier learnings and soon afterthat I was attending outings and spending time with local guides to further my knowledge; learning, observing and experiencing, while also spending an increasing amount of time in the forest by myself to get better acquainted with our Cape mushrooms.
Today my love for wild mushrooms is stronger than ever before. I hunt them as often as I can and host a yearly mushroom hunt and food experience at Boschendal, teach with Roushanna Gray from Veld and Sea, occasionally train chefs how to forage for wild ingredients and supply a number of local restaurants & markets with wild gourmet mushrooms, trading as First Light Foods. I travel around the country teaching the art of mushroom foraging and thoroughly enjoy sharing my passion through teaching this sacred practice. My focus lies in the culinary and medicinal aspects of wild mushrooms, because one can unlock such complex flavours and textures from them – not to mention learn from them and heal from them. Mushroom authorities in the world like Paul Stamets are proving their potential to the world, in terms of practical applications throughout many fields. For millenia mushrooms have been known to be medicinal, but only in the current era are we able to prove their healing properties in laboratories. It’s a fascinating time to be alive.
I believe that although a plate of mushrooms is hard to refuse, they are best suited to compliment and bring out the best of other food being paired with. When you pair Wood Blewit mushrooms with a creamy tarragon sauce, something special happens. Likewise, a classic Porcini mushroom pasta is an absolute knockout. Choice edible mushrooms that regularly feature on the menus of some of the world’s finest restaurants can be found in forests right here throughout South Africa, and I’m pretty excited about that.