I love mushrooms. As a veggie, I eat rather a lot of them. When I’m in Italy I eat as many porcini and fresh truffle dishes as I can and while travelling and living in Asia I savoured the weird and wonderful fungi that I’d never seen before. South Africa sadly has a definite lack of mushroom variety, with the white button pervading our supermarket shelves. However, I’ve noticed that exotic mushrooms are becoming increasingly available in Woolies, and I buy them whenever I get a shroom craving.
As the mushroom’s biggest fan, I was super excited to be invited to a mushroom day at wine estate Delheim, in the winelands near Stellenbosch. The invite promised mushroom foraging in a ‘secret location’ in the forest, mushroom tasting and a mushroom lunch paired with wine. They didn’t need to ask me twice…
So there I was, on a chilly winter morning, foraging for mushrooms in the woods on Delheim’s estate. Having never actually foraged for anything before, I was rather excited. Before our mushroom hunt began, Adriaan Smit, a renowned mycologist (that’s a mushroom expert) and MD of the rather wonderful-sounding SA Gourmet Mushroom Academy in Stellenbosch introduced mushrooms and gave us some tips for successful foraging (that’s when you don’t pick mushrooms that will kill you eight to twenty-four hours later). Armed with boxes of freshly-picked beautifully strange mushrooms he regaled us with fascinating stories about the fungi.
There’s a mushroom called the shaggy mane which, if you don’t eat it within a day of picking it, dissolves into a puddle of ink. Great for painting with, not so great to eat. He held up the amanita pantherina, one of the deadliest mushrooms. Contrary to what you’d think, you can actually touch deadly mushrooms without dying. Adriaan told us that white button mushrooms and brown mushrooms are actually the same mushroom – the brown ones are just picked eight hours after the white ones.The ink cap mushroom is fine to eat, but if you drink wine within seven days of eating it then you’ll get a poisonous reaction, and there’s a mushroom that tastes exactly like chicken. Who knew the world of mushrooms could be so interesting?
Someone then asked the inevitable – ‘What about magic mushrooms?’ Adriaan says that magic mushrooms grow on dead matter and you can find them all over the place. Most of the magic mushrooms that people buy come from other African countries and often aren’t dried properly, so incidences of food poisoning are high. Maybe a case for becoming a mycologist and then picking your own magic shrooms?
On that note, we headed up into the woods. There are a suprisingly large number of mushrooms around, which you tend not to notice usually. As we walked, Adriaan picked and told us about each mushroom. There were some even he didn’t know enough about to identify, which really put me off ever going mushroom hunting on my own. There are 1.5 million mushroom species and only a few of them are deadly but it’s still not worth risking your life for a risotto.
We spread out and went picking on our own, returning to Adriaan with piles of orange, brown, purple and white mushrooms. I decided I quite liked foraging – it was like something out of an Enid Blyton book from my childhood, wandering around the wood picking delicate fungi from under branches.
After the foraging, we had a presentation from Nouvelle Mushrooms, a producer of exotic mushrooms and supplier to Woolworths (where I buy my exotics) and restaurants. The MD talked a lot about the amazing health benefits of mushrooms. They’re anti-metogenic, which means they can fight the formation of cancerous tumours (mushrooms are actually used in cancer medication), rich in antioxidants, and several species have cholesterol-lowering effects. In Asia, mushrooms are associated with health, but for some reason, in the West people don’t think of mushrooms as particularly healthy.
While we had the presentation, we also got to do a mushroom tasting of king oyster, shimeji and shiitake mushrooms, all of which are delicious. I particularly like shiitake mushrooms though, for their meaty umami-ness.
To finish off the shroom-filled day, we were treated to a three-course mushroom meal in Delheim’s restaurant. First up was a paw paw and shimeji salad with a ginger, chilli and citrus dressing, paired with Sauvignon Blanc. It surprisingly worked – the cold sweetness of the paw paw complemented the earthyness of the mushrooms. I’m definitely going to try this at home. While everyone else at the table had the mushroom risotto, I opted for tagliatelle with a creamy sauce of mixed exotic mushrooms (paired with Chenin Blanc). Yum. You wouldn’t think you could turn mushrooms into a pudding, but you can. We had shiitake-flavoured cookies (paired with Gewurtztraminer), and it was only after you’d finished eating that you’d taste that distinctive mushroom flavour.
I found more reasons to love mushrooms and as I left Delheim with a punnet of mixed exotics all I could think about was the exciting mushroom dishes I’d come up with. No more buttons for me!
Mushroom hunting tips
- Stay clear of mushrooms with white gills
- No deadly mushrooms have pores, so if you pick a mushroom with pores then it’s ok to put it in a risotto
- Little brown mushrooms (LBMs, to those in the know) are best avoided as they could be deadly – it’s not worth taking the risk
- Don’t go mushroom hunting on your own, unless you’re an expert. Instead, join a mushroom foraging group and go hunting armed with mushroom identification books. You need to be 100% sure of what mushroom you’ve picked before you eat it.
- Pine ring mushrooms are one of the easiest to identify. They’re bright orange, turn green when you bruise them and lactate orange milk if you cut them. They’re delicious!
- If you have a severe reaction within the first few hours of eating a mushroom, consider yourself lucky – you may get sick but you won’t die. If you get symptoms eight to twenty four hours after eating a picked shroom then you’ve probably ingested a deadly one. Oops.
Mushroom eating tips (from Nouvelle Mushrooms)
- Shiitake mushrooms have a strong flavour that lends itself to dishes with veg, meat, seafood and poultry. It’s great in just about anything, from risottos to stews, stir fries and soups.
- King oyster mushrooms are firm and chewy. They can be used in Italian dishes, and cab be grilled, barbecued or deep fried in tempura.
- Enoki mushrooms are the spindly little shrooms that look like something out of a fairytale. They’re usually eaten raw and in salads, and in Japan they’re used in soups.
- Shimeji mushrooms can be boiled or fried and make a great pasta sauce.
Cultivating your own mushrooms
- The Gourmet Mushroom Academy offers courses in mushroom cultivation.
- Mushrooms need high levels of humidity and low temperatures to grow, and you can grow them totally organically, without pesticides or fungicides.
And, remember, all mushrooms are fungi, but not all fungi are mushrooms.
Delheim’s Mushroom Week will last until 10 July. Visit the wine estate to learn about wild mushrooms and try their delicious wild mushroom dishes.
Contact the SA Gourmet Mushroom Academy