How to Hunt Mushrooms

We speak to Justin Williams about hunting for mushrooms

Words: Dylan Muhlenberg | Illustrations: Jade Williams

“You get old mushroom hunters and you get bold mushroom hunters. But you will never find an old, bold mushroom hunter. 

These are words to live by, according to Justin Williams, whose love for nature has led to a fairly lucrative sideline hobby, but also comes with the strict advice that you should never take chances because in his game mistakes can be fatal.

“When in doubt, throw it out.”

And while he’s quick to say that he’s not an expert, “that field is left entirely for mycologists and botanists” Justin is well versed enough in our local varieties and their uses that we asked him to share some of his knowledge, which he plucked from an old Russian hermit who lived on Table Mountain.

“He was a wandering herbalist and expert mushroom forager who for over 40 years resided (by choice) in and amongst the kloofs, gorges, ravines and valleys, living in and learning about nature along with its most intimate secrets. His legacy has proved to be a massive inspiration for me and I cherish the old literature that has preserved his memories and extensive knowledge.”

Working in digital marketing by day, Justin transforms into a basket-wielding truffle hound after hours and on weekends and has the following advice for those wanting to spend their time hunting fungus.

Know when to go

Sought-after varieties like porcini can pop up during any time of the year provided conditions are correct – this being adequate moisture followed by warmth. But generally, most mushroom varieties prefer the autumn and winter months due to the increased rainfall and dew. There are exceptions to that rule though and some species like ‘Chicken of the Woods’ grow in the hottest summer months, while others like Blewits prefer the coldest months.

Know where to go

There are so many places to look, starting from here in Cape Town and the Winelands and the various forests, parks, green belts and farmlands. Heading up the Garden Route to Knysna and Plett there are excellent prospects. Mpumalanga is fantastic for mushrooms too, especially Dullstroom and Belfast. The Hogsback is mushroom central. One cannot forget the Drakensberg, and then you get the KZN Midlands and the Magoebaskloof in Limpopo and the list goes on.

Get the right gear

Every mushroom forager should use a basket for storing their haul. Preferably a wicker basket or mesh bag, as this allows the spores of the mushrooms to fall back onto the forest floor and propagate for future seasons to come. A penknife comes in handy for scraping and slicing any dirt off the mushroom before placing into the basket. I often carry a stick to brush plants and long grass aside to check if there are any mushrooms in hiding.

And this stuff…

It is critical to obtain a permit if you are picking in a national park or to get the owner’s permission if you are foraging on private land. Baskets, knives and sticks are practical items to bring with when foraging. A field guide is a very good idea too, and I would recommend A Field Guide to to the Mushrooms of South Africa by H. Levin. Unfortunately this book went out of print some years ago but can still be found online and at second-hand book stores.

What’s good?

Generally mushrooms that have sponge under the cap are safe to eat – then there's the giant Bushveld Bolete which is found in northern parts of the country which is reported to be hallucinogenic. There are many mushroom species in South Africa, too many to have precisely nailed down. You get giants of the veld right down to the shy forest varieties. Probably hundreds, upwards to a thousand different species exist within our border.

What’s bad?

One should always avoid mushrooms with white gills as some of the deadly ones have this feature. Having said that, there are exceptions to the rule and the odds do work in your favour, but it’s really just not worth taking a chance. Also, old mushrooms should be left alone as they can have an undesirable effect on you if they've already started to decompose.

Buddy up

Having a keen sense of sight and smell always comes in handy. Often it's too much for one person to scour an entire area, so assistants are always a good idea – plus, if you're wandering in the wild having no less than two people is common sense. Animals are good assistants for finding mushrooms too: species like pigs are attracted by the pheromones that truffles put out.

Tips, tricks and techniques

Follow your nose! Often mushrooms can be found by sniffing them out, much like how that pig we spoke of can sniff out truffles. By knowing the different smells of mushrooms once can follow the wind and find them with relative ease. Look for bumps, irregular shapes and colours. Pay attention to all of those. Use your senses and the mushrooms will make themselves visible to you. It depends on the species but I generally twist and pull my mushrooms out of the ground, then cover up the hole and conceal my tracks. Sometimes I cut them at the base too.

Good eating

No mushrooms should be eaten raw as this does no favours for your digestive tract. Instead, gently fry them up sliced in some butter and let the magic unfold. Better yet, bring a skottel with if you are permitted to light fires in that area and cook them right there in the forest… it is one of the finest experiences to eat them straight away. I have loads of recipes and one worthy of mention would have to be fried wild mushroom risotto balls, including mushrooms like porcini, dried trompette and blewits when they’re around. In reality all you need is mushrooms, butter, garlic, parsley, onion, stock, white wine, Arborio rice, patience and probably more wine.

Magic mushrooms

Expanding your consciousness is not to be taken lightly. Moving on...

Mushroom tours

I've just started taking small groups of people out to share knowledge about which varieties to look out for. I am not a mycologist, but have a keen eye and nose for finding them and a lot of people seem very interested about this ancient practice. I have a mailing list that people can sign up for on www.mushlove.co.za to book a spot for the walks that I offer.

Why hunting?

All of the elements of hunting are there – weather, time of season, and so on. The only difference here is that we’re not killing any animals but rather picking the mushroom “fruit” of a much larger underground organism called “mycelium” – which is basically the plant, if we had to consider the mushrooms as fruit.