What happened to those magic mushrooms of yore?

I AM mycophobic. I am ill with the fear of mushrooms. I fear how bland most commercially available mushrooms are. I fear that I will never again enjoy the pungent aroma and flavour of the delicious wild fungus that, in my youth, I so excitedly gathered in the veld with my grandmother after the first downpour of the rainy season. So rich, earthy and flavoursome were those mushrooms that, simply fried in a little butter and served on toast, they constituted a full meal.

And, if we were lucky enough to find them on the sports field during my days at boarding school, my brave friend, Pauline and I would smuggle butter from the dining room and fry up our fungal booty in jam lids over candles, miraculously escaping both lead and mushroom poisoning year after year.

So, where have those delightful mushroom flavours gone? Why do button and brown mushrooms – those two strains so commercially prevalent in this country – seem worthwhile only as sponge-like assimilators? Certainly, they willingly absorb the flavours of ingredients like garlic, pesto and feta but alone, they are sadly demure and as stimulating to the taste buds as polystyrene.

Will I ever swoon over a mushroom again?

The news, in fact, is encouraging. It is time, I am told, to stop carping, get informed, and go and hunt the many edible little gems in the countryside for myself. What’s more, a number of retailers – led, it seems, by good old Woolworths – are broadening the range of mushrooms commercially available, making it increasingly easy to buy species like Porcini, Shiitake and Portabella.

Correspondingly, Dr Adriaan Smit, lecturer and advisor at the South African Gourmet Mushroom Academy in Stellenbosch, says there is growing interest in gourmet mushrooms among potential producers, the hospitality industry and consumers in this country.

Gourmet mushrooms, he says, are “any mushroom other than the white and brown button mushrooms commonly found in supermarkets”. The genre covers about 50 strains of edible fungi including Morel, Enoki, Nameko, Matsutake, Buna-shimeji, Paddy Straw Mushrooms, and all the Oysters – King, Tree, Phoenix, Golden Oyster and Pink. The mushroom I so wistfully recall from the days of yore, Smit somewhat inadequately guesses is a “wild variety of the button mushroom”. (My disappointment is allayed though, when he adds that it is known as the “Fantastic Button” and says that there is no reason that I should not happen upon it again, where conditions allow.)

In addition to offering training and consulting services to businesses that want to establish themselves in the gourmet mushroom industry, and to culinary experts who want to learn more about cooking the exotic species, the academy accommodates mushroom enthusiasts – including groups of tourists – who want to explore and identify the country’s wild edible mushrooms.

The desire and courage to learn and experiment is, believes Cape Town chef and restaurateur, Bruce Robertson key to entering the magical world of edible mushrooms.

“South Africans are generally brave when it comes to experimenting with new varieties of meat – hey, they’ll eat giraffe – but, primarily because of ignorance I think, most are nervous of trying wild mushrooms and so miss out on a great deal as a result,” he says.

The menu at Robertson’s Showroom Restaurant includes dishes of Morel and Porcini, although he says he has access to 13 different species of edible fungi and would be delighted to cater for more daring diners if they were so inclined. When conditions are right (it must rain in the Kalahari in April), you could even be lucky enough to enjoy one of Africa’s own truffles (essentially underground mushrooms) at Robertson’s restaurant.

Aside from foodies, and given their comparable proclivity for things tasty – not to mention the advantage of their rural locale – the winemakers of the Cape seem to be pioneering a revival in wild mushroom hunting and cuisine. While Meerlust’s Giorgio Dalla Cia gathers Porcini in the Jonkershoek Forest near Stellenbosch and Mulderbosch’s Mike Dobrovic has a secret crop spot in the vicinity of the Helshoogte, Paul Cluver and Andries Burger of Paul Cluver Wines in Elgin hunt down Pine Rings in the estate’s plantations.

“(They are) rich, meaty, peppery, wild, earthy, pungent,” enthuses Burger, as if briefing a writer for the back label copy of one of his wines, “excellent with Pinot Noir.”

Although Cluver says he has collected wild mushrooms from early childhood, he refers to his copy of Struik’s Mushrooms of Southern Africa Field Guide if there is any doubt about the identity of a mushroom. It is essential to know exactly what you are collecting.

Cluver also advocates ‘sustainable mushroom gathering’: “We use baskets into which we place the mushrooms with their gills facing downwards. That means the spores fall onto the ground as we walk, ensuring that the mushrooms germinate next season.”

No more cocooning from me. I am going mushrooming. I have the basket, I have the book and I am going to experience real, mushroom flavour again if it is the last thing I ever do.

(First published in The Weekender in August 2006. Sadly, The Showroom Restaurant is no longer open but you can still enjoy Bruce Robertson’s culinary expertise in the picnics offered by Warwick near Stellenbosch. Photograph: Canadian Mushrooms.)

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About Administrator

Freelance writer based in Hout Bay near Cape Town in South Africa.
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