“Oh my God, look at the size of that thing” shouted Donald from somewhere amongst the shrubbery.
His beaming smile appeared from behind the bole of a large pine tree, and in his hand, cradled reverently like a crystal chalice, was the largest mushroom I had ever seen.
“It’s a Boletus edulus” he exclaimed breathlessly “The king of all the mushrooms” and then he hugged it and gave it an affectionate kiss upon its shiny brown dome.
One could easily think Donald had just struck gold (or perhaps his head) so elated was he with his find.
“I cant wait to show my wife.” he gasped “She’ll be beside herself”
It was a hot and humid morning in November. Steam from a previous week’s worth of torrential rain swirled amongst the trunks of my local pine forest. Everywhere was damp.
“Perfect mushrooming weather” Donald had said to me in a sms
I hadn’t ever really considered picking mushrooms before. After all, like most people, I was under the distinct impression that they are poisonous or at the very least, wildly hallucinogenic.
But no! According to Donald, and other mushroom experts, the majority of varieties are benign, fascinating, colourful things. And if you know the right ones to pick (bring along a guide book) then they’re absolutely delicious too.
Donald (and his wife Heather) have a condition known as mycophilia. It cant be treated, not even with a dose of penicillin. But at least its not life threatening or particularly debilitating. It is contagious though. I know, because I’ve now got it (and so has my wife) but its not so bad, and were learning to live with the symptoms.
A mycophile loves anything to do with fungi (perhaps with the exception of athletes foot, bread mold, jock itch, and ring worm) and as such, we are often drawn into spending money on fungi themed coffee table books, expensive gourmet mushrooms and weekend breaks into the countryside where mushies tend to congregate.
Occasionally we will be overcome by a zombie like compulsion to wander around pine plantations with a wicker basket. Its that or else we go out on early morning raids on suburban gardens where oak trees grow.
Shhh, don’t tell the neighbors, but all the best wild edible mushrooms are found beneath these two types of tree.
My mycophilia affliction is a mild one though. I simply like to go out collecting. Its such a nice thing to do. But folk like Dr Adriaan Smit of the South African Gourmet Mushroom Academy, or Bert Reynders, a mushroom grower who calls himself The Fun Guy (get it? Fungi!) have taken their fancy for fungus to much greater extremes.
They’re obsessed geniuses. Forever twiddling about with cultures and spores in their quest for the perfect mushroom.
And that’s just the beginning. Not only are many mushrooms good to eat, scientific research is revealing an untapped resource where mycology may one day help to cure cancers, reverse Alzheimer’s, clean up toxic spill sites, breakdown plastics, transfer nutrients to crops, boost our immune systems and filter polluted water.
“There are a great many commercial applications for mushroom growers” Dr Smit told me two weeks later as I sat in on a gourmet mushroom training course held in a mushroom themed conference room, in the mushroom themed boutique hotel near Stellenbosch. Even the chair I sat on was fashioned after a fungi.
“The tea you are drinking is a mushroom tea. And the dessert is made from mushrooms too” Adriaan told me during a lunch break.
I had just sat through several hours of lectures, during which, Adriaan had enlightened me and fellow students on some of the more precise requirements needed to produce gourmet mushrooms commercially.
“Its one of the only crops whereby you are guaranteed a non seasonal daily harvest. You also need very little space. Just a few sterile rooms really”
When I signed up, I had erroneously assumed that I would be frolicking with Dr Smit through forests in search of interesting and edible delicacies. That or perhaps learning how to grow a few simple varieties from a rotten log or a damp piece of cloth.
But no! This was all very serious and technical stuff, and Dr Smit was a very serious and technical chap when it came down to the commercial value and science behind fungiculture.
However, his neck ties were anything but….
Neck ties & DJ’s
A dapper gent, Dr Smit carried an aristocratic air about himself; a sort of dandyness that could easily place him in a French country estate, cane in hand and a pair of truffle boars at his heals.
Clearly, by his poise, his clothing and his clinical attitude towards fungiculture, he was a fastidious man, and a mushroom snob to boot.
“Here, we do not talk about button mushrooms” he told the assembled students, his nose wrinkling with apparent disgust
“Button mushrooms are mass produced and the lowest of all the edible mushrooms. Here at the mushroom academy we learn how to cultivate abalone, king, pink, golden, and phoenix oyster mushrooms. Also there are the shiitakes, the enoki, buna-shimeji and nameko. All of these are gourmet mushrooms and all of them are growing in popularity”
It all sounded Japanese to me…
A lab scientist by training, Dr Smit became South Africa’s premier mushroom advocate and ambassador through a history of working in the field of mycological research; and of course, from his subsequent passion for the subject.
Since leaving the lab some years ago, he has made it his mission to educate people about the properties and values of mushrooms; something he does meticulously through his various multi-day courses.
During my time with Adriaan, I learned all about the science behind mixing substrates, running spores, setting up climate controlled growing rooms, sterilizing, inoculating, pest control, cloning and marketing too.
I even know how to set up a lamina flow system and a substrate autoclave (don’t ask. Its technical and a bit dull)
It was all jolly fascinating stuff, if not a tad clinical, but I did come away with enough course material and useful contacts that should I wish to set up my own small scale mushroom growing business, I certainly could!
However, although I do like mushrooms, I’m not ever likely to commit my life to them, but I definitely wanted to meet someone who had.
That’s how I came to know Bert ‘fun guy’ Reynders, a man so visually (and perhaps culturally) at odds to Dr Smit, yet so similar in passions and intellect that they could have been brothers.
Living and working from his rustic farm home in the Western Cape’s rural Rheenendal, Bert is one of those baggy jumper, hole in trouser, unkempt of beard types.
He has wind chimes in the trees around his farm, free range chickens on the stoep, pet dogs everywhere and a professional set of DJ equipment in the living room.
“My wife and I are both trance music DJs” he told me as we sat down for coffee in the woods behind his house. “I also have an information technology business”
But what really fascinates Bert are his mushrooms. Actually, he’s obsessed with them.
His fungiculture set up is a modest one, Just a handful of growing rooms and ventilators, but he still manages to produce several kilos of gourmet mushrooms daily.
“It used to be a bigger operation” he told me “But Eskom and their price hikes made it impossible to maintain.
That’s ok though; Mushrooms have taught me the value of making a plan, and I haven’t stopped learning or adapting since I first started farming with them seven years ago”
From necessity, Bert has devised his own solar air flow systems, his own low tech growing rooms, as well as mediums on which to grow his fungus. He also designs his own mushroom strains and flavors and is now working with medicinal varieties.
“Mushrooms keep my head straight. They give me something worth doing in my life. I cant say that about my IT business although its that which pays the bills”
On initial contact, Bert comes across as a lifestyle farmer; a chap who is content to live a simple life in a rural backwater, just getting by. But when you talk mushroom science with him, you soon realise that he has an expert’s encyclopedic knowledge and a fiery passion for the subject.
Bert, like Adriaan (and Donald too) is a mushroom ambassador. His web page (see below) is packed full of fascinating facts, home projects and thought provoking references to the wonderful world of mycology
“I’ll always grow gourmet fungi” he told me whilst serving up a breakfast of succulent oyster mushrooms “Just to keep in touch with them, but my real fascination lies with the science of mushrooms and how they can aid our health and the environment.”
So whether you are a farmer, a collector, a lab rat, a chef or a DJ, it seems that those who have a fondness for mushrooms tend to become a little obsessed by them.
Mycophila! Its addictive.
And with that, I have to finish this article. Its been raining outside for a while and Donald has just sent me an SMS
‘ OMG Just found the mother of all mushrooms. Bring your basket. Its picking time again’
What is a mushroom?
Mushrooms are not plants. They belong to a distinct Kingdom of life called fungi
The part which we eat (the thing we call a mushroom) is equivalent to a flower on a plant.
Most of a fungi’s biomass consists of hair like structures that form dense mats under the ground. These are called mycelium. Next time you are outdoors in a damp environment, lift up a log and you will likely encounter a white furry mass or tendril like structures. This is mycelium
Mycelium break down organic debris in nature.
Many also form mutualistic relationships with plants by connecting to their root systems.
The fungus passes nutrients to the plant in exchange for sugars which the plant produces through photosynthesis
Only a few wild mushroom varieties are poisonous, but one should never take unnecessary risks when collecting. If you are not 100% sure it is safe, do not eat it.
The same applies to berries on a plant.
Familiarize yourself with the common edible types and stick to collecting those only.
Boletus species are found in pine forests and under oaks. They have a soft spongy undersurface and do not have gills.
Dr Smit says avoid white gilled species (unless you are an expert) because some of the deadly ones belong to this group.
Although not comprehensive, Marieka Gryzenhout’s pocket guide to the Mushrooms of South Africa is an invaluable aid to collecting edible mushrooms.
You cannot get sick from touching a mushroom says Dr Smit.
Find out more by visiting http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boletus_edulis
Dr Adriaan Smit conducts regular mushroom growing courses for both beginners and advanced students.
He also occasionally conducts special mushroom picking forays into the countryside
To find out more visit www.mushroomacademy.com
Ph 021 855 1136
For mushroom themed accommodation and restaurant experience contact the wild mushroom boutique hotel in Stellenbosch
Learn how to grow your own mushys from kits, or buy cultures, ‘mycogrow’ mushroom boxes and a plethora of other mushroom products from www.funguys.co.za
Phone 044 388 4731