My ultimate umami find happened a week and a half ago, and here’s how it went down, but first, a little about my longstanding love of porcini mushrooms.
Porcinis (aka ceps) are magic in fungi form: with a nutty and earthy taste, and perfumed to near intoxication levels. When I lived in LA, they were delivered to the kitchen of the Italian restaurant where I worked, dried and occasionally frozen, flown in from Italy. We used them like expensive flavour bullets, mostly adding them to dishes to give them that extra depth.
A few years later, in a restaurant in Sienna, my husband ate a simple grilled porcini mushroom the size of a dinner plate. It was just as delicious as it was outrageous to look at. I thought that mushroom (which was not on the menu – it was one of those “I’ll have what he’s having” in a foreign country experiences) qualified as the ultimate umami experience, until recently, when Justin Williams took me on a walk through an old cork oak plantation in Cecilia Forest.
Justin is a mushroom forager, and passionate, I mean PASSIONATE, about mushrooms. I learned much more in the hour and a half I spent with him than I could recount here; more importantly, I tried to absorb some of Justin’s acute awareness of the sensory nuances one should look for when hunting mushrooms, like a small bump of ruffled leaves…which could be just that, or a hiding place for a porcini pop-up. And their root systems, which look like tiny white threads buried just under the soil; their presence suggests mushrooms could be nearby.
Justin is not only solid at visual scouting; he’s got a nose that can detect porcinis. When the conditions are right – following a rain, which amplifies scent – he can find them by smell, and knowing which way the wind is blowing.
When Justin was 10, his Dad, who was an avid coastal forager with no mushroom experience, took him to the Tokai Forest to pick mushrooms. They merrily roamed the forest floor collecting a basketful of mushrooms, and only later, thought maybe they should do some research before they ate their haul. When they ID’ed them in a library book, they found that they were all inedible. Justin was disappointed but intrigued, and about four years ago, when he saw an elderly Italian man picking mushrooms in Newlands Forest, he stopped him and asked for a few pointers. He’s been on the hunt for mushrooms ever since.
Justin and his girlfriend Bev guided me through the cork forest planted over a century ago by Cecil John Rhodes, who in his expansionistic colonial style, thought this rugged African mountainside would be a good location for European cork oaks. The mushroom spores in those saplings survived the trip from Europe, which is how porcini mushrooms came to be in South Africa. “Many edible and poisonous mushroom species tend to pop up in this spot, owing to its south-facing slope, which is ideal for fungal growth,” Justin says. Porcinis can also be found in the neighbouring pine, oak and poplar forests; they have a symbiotic relationship with the trees they grow under.
Sadly, this beautiful fairy-tale like forest — is under threat…according to Justin, SANParks has earmarked it to be cut down and repopulated with indigenous plants. No doubt, this will be a fight to the end, as the forest is widely enjoyed, not only by foragers. In fact, as we walk, we’re stopped several times by mountain bikers who ask us what we are looking for. Everyone is interested and amazed: “How do you know they aren’t poisonous?” is their number one question.
In South Africa, there are over 800 species of mushrooms, of which 10 are poisonous, and of these, four are deadly. This means the odds are in your favour, but who really wants to take that gamble?
There are many sayings about mushrooms that Justin shares; nearly all have to do with their potential toxicity. My favourite is: “There are bold mushroom hunters and there are old mushroom hunters.” While I’m confident in Justin’s presence, I’m not sure I would be alone, although the porcini looks quite distinct. Its name means “little pig” in Italian: it has a thick crooked stem a little like a pig’s tail, and a plump rounded top. And that unmistakeable nutty porcini smell.
We walk along a path with our baskets, occasionally going off track when a leafy pile is spotted. The baskets are important to use, as the spore drift through their cracks, ensuring future propagation, and they also let the picked mushrooms breathe (never use a plastic bag). The only other equipment is Justin’s mushroom knife, with a blade on one end and a brush for removing dirt on the other. Porcinis are gently twisted out of the soil by their stems; then the surface at the base of the stems is peeled off with a knife before they are brushed and stowed away.
The morning is a good one, says Justin, as all in all, we find about 8 porcinis. Along the way, we see a few other mushrooms, including the absolutely fantastical and hallucinogenic Fly Agaric mushroom, a bright red toadstool that looks like it’s straight out of Shrek. We also come across a poisonous Panther Cap and its edible relative, the Blusher, which look very similar. This is why Justin recommends avoiding these.
Perhaps the most impressive fact I learned is that porcini mushrooms grow from button size to fist-size overnight. No need to put a time-lapse camera on these babies. In fact, according to Justin, some mushroom hunters say they can actually hear them grow. Old wives’ tale? Probably not, if the conditions are right, meaning damp heat following a rain.
I left with a basket full of gorgeous chubby porcinis and a head full of ideas of what to do with them. And pinching myself on the drive back, that I had, indeed, just found my very favourite mushrooms in the wild 15 minutes away from where I live.
If you are interested in learning more about mushrooms, Justin often takes groups on forages. While he’s generous with his time and knowledge, like a good forager, he still keeps some secrets to himself. He’s also started supplying high end restaurants with what he forages, a business he hopes will grow.
Chefs went crazy last spring, when he found morels growing in a secret location, which was his entrée into the restaurant world. His bestselling mushrooms have been chicken of the woods, a flowery looking mushroom that grows on tree trunks from January to March and tastes sort of like chicken (no joke); and porcinis, currently in season until June. His customer list reads like a Top 10 restaurant list, and includes The Test Kitchen, La Colombe, Chef’s Warehouse, Black Sheep Restaurant, Savoy Cabbage, Culture Club Cheese and Chalk & Cork.
What these chefs did with their mushrooms makes my mouth water. “La Colombe made a wonderful dish with smoked chestnuts and pickled porcini with shallots and tarragon. Chef’s Warehouse did a tapas with a medley of my foraged mushrooms, and Culture Club Cheese makes a breakfast with my porcinis on Woodstock sourdough, with poached eggs. And Chalk & Cork did a lovely East Coast hake dish on grilled rarebit with chicken of the woods mushrooms and pea veloute.”
While this mushroom foraging all sounds quite doable, a couple of words of warning. Firstly, err on the side of caution. “Knowing which mushrooms to pick can mean the difference between life and death and one mistake can be fatal. Beginners should stay away from mushrooms with white gills and always consult with an expert before consuming any species,” says Justin.
Secondly, a permit is required. There is ongoing debate about why this is necessary, as mushrooms are technically not plants; they are fungi that are renewable. Nevertheless, we were stopped by a SANParks ranger and asked for a permit. Mushroom foraging permits can be obtained at the Conservation office in Newlands. They are valid for 3 months, and allow each permit holder to collect up to 1 basket per week, which begs the question, how do they know you’ve only taken one basket. This is an ongoing discussion, and as Justin says, SANParks may ultimately stop issuing the permits altogether.