Foraging a proud tradition for Justin

JOHN HARVEY

Often to the bewilderment of their parents, 10-year-old boys tend to have a proclivity for the unusual.

Their curiosity about the world around them knows no bounds, often resulting in weird and undesirable items finding their way into the family home. Many a mother has reached for the blood pressure tablets on account of a son’s determination to break the gross barometer.

However, in the case of Newlands resident Justin Williams, who today is considered one of Cape Town’s premier wild mushroom foragers, his father was always the first to encourage his inquisitiveness, particularly for the birds, plants, animals and sea creatures of Noordhoek where he grew up.

“My dad, who was an avid diver, fisherman and coastal forager in his day, took us into Tokai Forest to find edible mushrooms. We didn’t have a clue what we were doing, as both of our crafts up until that point entailed seashore-based foraging for food,” said the intrepid 29-year-old.

“We then proceeded to pick a bunch of mushrooms, only to return home to our trusty field guide we had borrowed from the library and then discovered that none of them were edible. In fact, most of them were poisonous. It was at this point where my curiosity for mushrooms began to pique, and ever since then I began to learn more about them.”

Mr Williams’s passion for wild fungi and mushrooms has made him a well-known name in Cape Town, and he is frequently sought out for his expert opinion. Particularly with the city’s predilection for organic foods, his star has risen quickly, and those mushrooms he does not use himself (he makes a “wicked wild mushroom risotto” porcini eggs benedict for brunch) he sells to restaurants, private chefs and markets.

“Chefs absolutely love the foraged aspect of the ingredients I bring to them and it is wonderful to see how they are incorporating these wild ingredients into their creations. There is an increasing curiosity about mushroom foraging and I get quizzed about it every time I go out by passers-by. I am happy to share the knowledge as the mushrooms are there for everybody to enjoy.

“Fungi are a near-abundant food source and it is extremely difficult to deplete the supply unless host trees are removed or the environment is changed. The mushrooms you see above the ground are merely the fruit of a much larger, subterranean organism known as mycelium, which in essence is an information highway consisting of countless threads. If the mycelium is removed or damaged, the mushrooms will not appear.”

Mr Williams warned if people were in any doubt about a mushroom, they should throw it out immediately.

“Never consume a wild mushroom unless you are absolutely certain about what it is. One mistake can be fatal. More often than not, the ones with white gills under the cap are poisonous, some even deadly. You get old mushroom foragers and you get bold mushroom foragers, but you never find old, bold mushroom foragers. Always consult with an expert. “

He said Cape Town was fortunate to have a handful of edible varieties that were prized around the world, including porcini, chicken of the woods, blewits and pine rings (also known as saffron milk caps), which could be found at different times of the year in their preferred habitats.

Such has been the interest in Mr Williams’ craft that he recently began offering guided educational tours.

“Apart from teaching general identification and how to discern between the edible and poisonous varieties, sustainability is important for me and I teach best practices such as leaving the small mushrooms to grow for others to find, how to harvest them in the right way and so on.”

For Mr Williams, foraging also represents the opportunity to be part or a proud tradition, both locally and internationally.

“My biggest influences and sources of inspiration are from two people who are no longer with us. The first was an old Russian hermit and herbalist named Joseph ‘Professor’ Masurek who spent most of his days in the veld in and around Cape Town, learning plants, herbs, mushrooms and more.

“For over 40 years he trekked around the Cape, often sleeping in the mountains by choice and acquiring an unparalleled knowledge of the landscape. The wandering herbalist with the flaming red beard and long hair was a well-known figure in Cape Town up until his passing in the mid-1950s, and his legacy is fortunately preserved in several books written by the late author Lawrence Green. I constantly refer back to the stories about him.”

He also draws on the insights of the the late botanist Edith Stephens, who was the author of South Africa’s first mushroom guides.

“She played a major role in bringing mushrooms to the public’s attention from as early as the 1930s. Her life’s work is archived in the city and I refer to it every so often to learn.”

Mr Williams, who works in digital marketing when he is not in the forest or land around Cape Town, said he was thrilled that the foraging “scene” was picking up.

“The knowledge is spreading and it is fantastic to see a growing interest about going out into the wild to gather food. On the other hand, it is a great pity to find that a select few, experienced mushroom foragers are extremely competitive about it and will resort to hostility if you’re at their ‘spots’. I believe that their heads are not in the right place and question their love for nature.”

Mushroom foraging is officially permitted at Newlands and Cecilia forests, both properties forming part of theTable Mountain National Park.

A permit is free and is valid for three months, allowing the permit holder to harvest one basket a week (around 15 to 20 mushrooms). Interested applicants would need to visit the TMNP Section Ranger, Chamell Pluim, at the Conservation Office at the Newlands forest base.

For further information, visit www.mushlove.co.za