The Mysterious life of the Mushroom Hunter

01/July/2014
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Along with urban gardens and traditional methods of cooking, the lost art of seasonal foraging is coming to the fore in the food world. People are exploring and rediscovering the old ways of doing things, in natural defiance of a world dominated by speed and mass-produced ingredients. Enter the ‘Mushroom Hunter’, Gary Goldman, and his gnome-like wisdom of finding, identifying and propagating mushrooms.

Some call it the dark art because of the lethal nature of some ‘shrooms, but as we set off on our maiden forage at Delheim Wine Estate in Stellenbosch our nervous trepidation was overtaken by the beauty of the environment and the thought of the treasures about to be unearthed.

Of course it helps – and is strongly advised – to go with someone with Gary’s experience. He very quickly pointed out the more common, bitter-flavoured, copper-top mushrooms that seemed to be in much abundance amongst the pines and were not worth a second glance. “In the Western Cape, all mushrooms with a spongy underbelly rather than fins are edible,” was a helpful bit of advice from Gary.  Don’t mistake that last statement for them being tasty – as Gary also said, “mushrooms taste like they smell”. So, if the mushroom smells like soap, it’s probably not going to go down too well with your favourite risotto.

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We headed deeper and deeper into the private pine forest on the Delheim Estate in search of turkey tails and shiitake. The first edible ‘shrooms we found were pine rings.  The top of the cap of this mushroom has concentric orange rings that replicate the rings of a tree trunk. You can squeeze out orange-red milk if you cut this mushroom when it’s fresh. You will also notice that it has a hollow stem. At this stage, if that Bear Grylls feeling of lone survivor foraging for rations fills your being, that’s perfectly acceptable!

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We cooked our collection of pine rings that evening in the comfort of our own kitchen and not out in the mountains, having been advised by the chef at Delheim to eat them by themselves or on toast, simply fried in some butter or olive oil. The flavour was delicate but delicious. Their delicate flavour would be overwhelmed by adding them in to another dish such as risotto. Mushrooms are best eaten fresh ­– preferably on the day you picked them.

A mushroom hunter must be well equipped to survive the hunt. A folding knife is apparently indispensible, along with a well-ventilated basket and a good pair of shoes strong enough to take on the mountains. Mushrooms are found off the beaten track and several days after a good rain, you will find them buried amongst the pine needles or stuck on the side of an old tree trunk. The magic of a mushroom hunt is the journey and the exploration of the hidden world of the fungi. Any mushroom hunter worth his (or her) weight in porcini, has their own secret spot where they hunts repeatedly, alone and never revealing its location to anyone else.

Once you have spotted a mushroom, the best way to pick it is by giving it a gentle twist. Be sure to cover the spot with soil once you have very gently placed your prize in your basket.

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Don’t be tempted as you excitedly find the red and white spotted mushrooms that look like the comfy stools of the common garden gnome. Amanita Muscaria is not lethal, but will cause severe discomfort to adults along with nausea, confusion and delirium, if eaten.

After our forage, we were treated to a number of delicious mushroom dishes – sublime mushroom soup, mushroom paté, risotto and mushroom salad at the restaurant at Delheim. The hunt may be you against the mushrooms, but once back at the table, the experience must be shared over a good glass of wine with fellow foragers.

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There’s an old, mushroom hunting quote that the Mushroom Hunter shared with us; “There are old mushroom hunters and there are bold mushroom hunters. There are no bold, old mushroom hunters”. Always double check, and check again, that you are absolutely certain that the mushrooms you have collected are edible and not poisonous.

Start in your local forest or join a guided tour such as the one we went on at Delheim. The cost of the Delheim tour and mushroom-inspired lunch is R250 per person. Look out for the next hosted event.

Any questions for Gary aka ‘The Mushroom Hunter’ visit his website at http://www.mushroomguru.co.za.

To find out about future mushroom hunts at Delheim please mail info@delheim.com

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