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 mothers have 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, 29 – 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.”

“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 that my curiosity in mushrooms began to pique – and ever since then, I began learning 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. Given 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” and 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 by passers-by every time I go out . 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.

“More often than not, the ones with white gills under the cap are poisonous, some even deadly… 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.

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.

Mushroom foraging is officially permitted at Newlands and Cecilia forests, both properties forming part of the Table 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