It is my experience that serendipity is a highly effective phenomenon. One of my favourite ways of channelling it is to wander around trade shows without any researched route. It can be an almost transcendental sensation, as one finds exciting new products apparently by chance. By the very nature of the trade shows I most regularly attend, the finds would normally be wines. But I amazed even myself at a food and beverage show in Hong Kong, by discovering porcini, morels and black truffles that had been grown in Yunnan province in China.
During an extended power failure in May 2005 I took a walk around Cloof, and came across a most impressive crop of mushrooms. At this point I had an interest in mushrooms – mainly for gastronomic reasons – but only knew enough to know not to eat mushrooms I could not identify with absolute certainty.
Fortunately I had a digital camera with me, so I photographed them from every angle. Even more fortunately, there was still a little battery life left in my laptop, so I was able to dial up to the internet. A Google search quickly gave me the contact details for the mushroom expert at the National Department of Agriculture, and within minutes Adriaan Smit had images of my funghi find in his inbox.
He thought they could be macrolepiota, but cautioned against ever identifying mushrooms on the basis of pictures alone. Then the world became really small. He called me back a few minutes later to say that Abe Beukes (the winemaker at Darling Cellars, a few kilometres down the road) a mushroom-collector, had an excellent book for assisting in averting death by mushrooms. Abe was with me in a flash – it turned out that Mr Smit is his brother-in-law.
After detailed examination of mushrooms in various stages of growth Abe pronounced that they were most likely macrolepiota, and that he’d be quite happy to eat them. The main features of the poisonous ones that look similar were not present (I later established that the mushrooms I found were actually a different variety, which shows how careful one needs to be). We both harvested several kilos. I immediately cooked a thickish slice in butter to test for toxicity in advance of dinnertime (the literature cautions against combining alcohol with unknown funghi, which is a problem). It was delicious; if this were my moment to slip off the mortal coil, what a way to go.
The main part of our dinner that evening had already been prepared, so I cooked the sliced mushrooms with butter, which we had on my toasted sourdough bread as a starter.
Other than when I was a toddler I’m not one to ingest unknown substances or objects (I’m not into Russian roulette!). But to have found mushrooms, eaten them on the basis of some research – and to still be alive to return to pick more – satisfied primeval urges in the best possible way. Foraging for food (usually processed) in the aisles of even the best supermarkets somehow doesn’t seem nearly as satisfying.
I subsequently found three other varieties of edible mushrooms at Cloof, and now find myself scanning the countryside for outcrops as I’m driving around. I have my own ‘secret’ spot for Boletus in Tokai forest, where I have also harvested Pine Rings. It’s as if the scales have been removed from my eyes. I haven’t lost my respect for the mushrooms that can kill you, but I’m able to recognise the features to watch out for.
I’ve even gone mushrooming in the forests around Oslo. Out in the open it was a beautifully sunny, crisp autumn day, but in the forest the light was so gloomy that I could barely make out the pygmy chanterelles we were gathering. It took forever just to get a kilogram, which would ultimately cook down to nothing. My hands were icy and I had lost all sensation in my nose.
On the way back into the city we stopped off at a supermarket, where we bought Arborio rice and some veal loin. Later I turned the provisions into a chanterelle and truffle risotto, topped with medallions of rare veal loin. It was a most satisfying meal!
Cape Town’s chief mushroomers are Italian. One of them – let’s call him Mario – related an experience he had in finding a large crop of porcini under a group of pine trees at a restaurant near Wilderness, on the Garden Route. As a polite citizen he’d first asked permission of the owner, who gave the go-ahead on condition that Mario point out the edible ones to him. Mario kept to his side of the bargain, and took his haul off to a friend for dinner. His friend (also Italian) lamented at length that Mario had let the owner in on the secret. He was almost in tears by the end of the evening. Finally, the next morning he had a solution: “Tell him, when we go for lunch, that there should have been three of us, but the other guy died from eating mushrooms last night.”
One has to be in the forest at the moment that the first light arrives, and probably slightly before, to get ahead of Mario and his kin. It is for good reason that they rejoice in the ignorance of Anglo Saxons who call mushrooms toadstools and fear their toxicity. They may even be fighting a secret media war to perpetuate our fear. The more of us that invade the forest, the fewer funghi there’ll be for them.
The first rains of the season, followed by a few warm days, are theoretically ideal conditions for the sprouting of mushrooms. But then, as any mushroom gatherer will tell you, the only predictability of mushrooms is their unpredictability. This phenomenon is not entirely dissimilar to the apparent – but highly fallable – causal link between the giving of gifts, flowers or other favours, and women’s willingness to join in physically intimate activity. In fact, to take the similarity further, paying for them is the only certain way of getting mushrooms.
Should one be surprised that most mushroom gatherers appear to be men, forever in pursuit of predictable uncertainty?