There’s a certain frisson of excitement at the dinner table when you realise that your meal could kill you. I didn’t get the chance to eat fugu – sashimi from the deadly puffer fish – on my trip to Japan last year, but the sense of trepidation was much the same when sitting down to my first meal of handpicked forest mushrooms. Handpicked, I should clarify, by me.
Was I about to enjoy the earthy aromas of the tasty Pine Ring, or suffer the consequences of its poisonous lookalike the Copper Trumpet? Had I confused a harmless Agaricus campestris with the decidedly noxious Agaricus xanthodermus?
But the fact that you’re reading this means those foraged mushrooms on toast weren’t the end of me. And all credit for that should go to Dr. Adriaan Smit, founder of the SA Gourmet Mushroom Academy. An internationally renowned mushroom expert and consultant for commercial mushroom growers, Adriaan also teaches fungi fanatics how to forage in forests and live to tell the tale.
“People are so scared to touch or pick mushrooms, but it’s all about education,” says Adriaan, as our class of four settles in for the theory component of his two-part course. Split over two weekend mornings, the ‘Wild Mushroom Identification’ course first covers the morphology and identification of ‘shrooms, followed by a hands-on Saturday morning picking through the pine forests above Stellenbosch.
And it starts with some good news: there are only a few wild mushrooms that can kill you.
“I can count the number of truly deadly poisonous mushrooms on one hand,” says Adriaan. “If you’re unsure of yourself a good rule of thumb is to ignore all mushrooms with white gills. Also ignore what we call the LBMs; little brown mushrooms that can be very difficult to identify.”
It’s also good to hear that in South Africa there are no deadly mushrooms with pores – rather than gills – under the cap. On the contrary, the likes of Boletus edulis, the prized porcini, and Suillus luteus, the so-called ‘Slippery Jack’ thanks to its sticky lining, are some of the most sought-after wild mushrooms.
But the lingo is the first thing we need to master. Are the gills, officially known as lamellae, beneath the cap notched or free? What is the colour from the spore print? Is the cap funnel-shaped or convex? Is the edge lobed or undulate? What about the stipe… does it have a basal bulb or partial veil?
With mushrooming the devil is in the detail, and if the specimen you’re holding has a light-green cap and a fluttering veil beneath it, there’s a chance you’re looking at the ever-so-charming Amanita phalloides. Perhaps better known as the Death Cap. It’s the most poisonous mushroom in local forests, and as the symptoms only appear when it is too late for treatment, is usually fatal when ingested.
Snippets of info like that tend to focus your concentration, and spotting the toxic from the tasty is harder than it seems. Mushrooms change and grow by the hour, making misidentification easy.
“When you’re out collecting it’s important to pay attention to the details,” says Adriaan. “It’s not only about the morphology. Smell the mushroom, feel the texture, stroke the gills, look at the habitat. Is it growing on dead wood, or attached to a living tree? They’re all things that can help you identify what you’re picking.”
Recognising the rich pickings of the forest floor is what the second morning of the course is all about, when we meet the following Saturday beneath the drizzly boughs of Jonkershoek forest. A cold front has swept the Cape and it’s been raining for a few hours; a good time to be mushrooming, as the change in the weather shocks the fungal network into survival mode of producing spore-laden mushrooms.
We set off into the woods, eyes glued to the carpet of needles and armed with a basket and a roll of wax paper. It pays to wrap each mushroom in a twist of wax paper as you collect, so that a single poisonous mushroom doesn’t contaminate your entire basket of pickings.
And the pickings are surprisingly rich, In a few short hours I have a dozen Pine Rings for my dinner, alongside a handful of other oddities: inedible Purple-stemmed Russula; the small Deceivers that speckle the pine needles; and an Amanita rubescens that is poisonous when raw, but edible if cooked properly.
We each spread out our bounty and we pick over the haul. Adriaan points out the telltale signs of the Pine Rings and the Amanitas, the Boletus from the Shaggy Ink Cap. Poisonous Fly Agarics are picked out, books are cross-referenced, and the four of us slowly get a handle on how to tell the poisonous from the palatable.
Mushroom experts we’re not, but at least I can tell my Lactarius deliciosus from my Lactarius hepaticus. I’ll still stay away from the LBMs and the anonymous mushrooms with white gills, but after just a few hours focused on fungi I’ve started seeing the forests of Cape Town in a whole new – edible – light.
For more information on Wild Mushroom Identification courses, visit www.mushroomacademy.com or call 021 855 1136.