Mushroom menace

PICTURES: Beverley Klein

Although most South Africans have been brought up to be cautious of wild mushrooms, more and more people have shown a keen interest in these little fungi and while preparing a home-cooked meal from freshly picked forest mushrooms can be exciting, it can also leave a bitter taste in your mouth.

And this is exactly what happened to a Hout Bay family who agreed to talk to the Sentinel about their scary ordeal on condition of anonymity.

What should have been a relaxed Sunday afternoon – following a leisurely hike up the Vlakkenberg trail near Silvermist Wine Estate on May 15 – turned into panic for the family when both parents had to be rushed to hospital after eating poisonous mushrooms.

When the family embarked on a hike that morning, it was not to look for mushrooms but rather to enjoy the beautiful surroundings the area had to offer.

The father who grew up in KwaZulu-Natal – often eating berries and fruits from the forest when he was a youngster – saw some mushrooms under some pine trees and thought it would be a good idea to identify them and to try them in a dish.

He gave one a small taste, it tasted sweet and after a two hour hike there were no signs of the mushroom not agreeing with him.

“We love cooking with organic food and thought it would be a great idea to try these mushrooms in a dish. My wife is part of a foodie cooking club and loves experimenting with food,” he said.

After the hike the couple and their two children returned home and used the internet to identify the mushrooms they had picked.

He described the mushrooms as having a mustard coloured cap with small white flecks, white gills and bulb at the bottom.

“In our opinion the mushrooms were white parasol mushrooms and safe to eat,” he said.

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They prepared a pasta dish and within 20 minutes of eating it, his wife started to lose sensation in her lips and hands.

“I immediately realised that it must have been the mushrooms and grabbed the phone to call for help. As I was dialling, I realised I could not see the numbers on the screen and had to ask my son to take over,” he said.

His wife staggered outside in an attempt to get help and the children were with her, comforting her.

When the ambulance arrived about 10 minutes later, he was still conscious but his wife had lost consciousness.

“My children (son, 13, and daughter, 10) are heroes. They were the ones that looked after my wife and alerted security guards that there was a problem,” the father said.

The couple were admitted to ICU and remained there for two days.

“It was a horrible experience and yes we shouldn’t have eaten the mushrooms and yes we should have done more research but we didn’t. Fortunately we are fine now and we have learnt from our experience,” he said.

Hout Bay resident and mushroom enthusiast, Mark Schlesinger said there is a vast amount of edible mushrooms in Cape Town as well as many that are undiscovered.

He said there were many places such as Tokai forest, Newlands forest and Constantia Nek where many species of mushrooms grew and although mushrooms can make a delicious meal, it is always advisable to go out with an expert when picking them.

“It is very difficult to identify mushrooms from a book or the internet,” he said.

He grew up in England and has been interested in mushrooms since the age of 13.

“I can’t even walk down the road without looking at patches of lawn in search for mushrooms,” he said.

Justin Williams, a well known Cape Town mushroom forager, says never consume wild mushrooms without consulting with an experienced forager first unless you are absolutely certain about what you have picked. The best advice he has for anyone foraging mushrooms is when in doubt, throw it out.

Mr Williams says there are more than 800 species of mushrooms in South Africa. Up to 30 are edible, about four are deadly poisonous, around 10 are very toxic and most others are classified as being inedible due to a very unpleasant flavour or just having a tough consistency.

He explains that in Cape Town there are several deadly and toxic species and extra special attention needs to be paid if considering foraging for wild mushrooms.

When it comes to identifying edible mushrooms, the most basic rule of thumb – and this applies to the Cape Town area only- is that they should have sponge under the cap and not gills – the textured folds under the cap when turned over.

In a local context, this sponge is found in edible species such as Boletus (including the famed porcini) and Suillius (including the tasty Slippery Jack mushrooms).

He says these edible species are generally found growing under and around pine and oak trees.

The sponge can be white or yellow, with the caps typically being various shades of brown.

“Porcini (Boletus edulis) is an easy mushroom to identify for first-timers, as they have very thick stems, dome-shaped caps with sponge underneath. Porcini will always smell pleasant and quite nutty.”

Meanwhile, gills can mean bad news if you are a new to mushroom foraging.

He says one should watch out for mushrooms with white gills as some of the deadly species – including the appropriately-named Death Cap and Destroying Angel – exhibit this feature.

“Never pick a mushroom that has white gills or if it has a rounded bulb or sac at the bottom of the stem,” he said.

In terms of handling, poisonous mushrooms are safe to handle provided your hands are washed after coming into contact with them.

The Death Cap (Amanita phalloides) is the deadliest mushroom and can cause death within a few days even after ingesting a small amount by liquefying the organs of the unlucky customer.

“Another very dangerous mushrooms found around Cape Town is called the Panther Cap (Amanita pantherina) – white gills, sac at the bottom of the stem as well as ‘warts’ on the surface of its brown cap. It should be avoided at all times,” he cautioned.

But there are exceptions to the “gill” rule, however, and one of them is the tasty Field Mushroom (Agaricus campestris).

He says these fungi are the wild cousins of the store-bought white button mushroom and can be identified by their rounded white caps with pink gills, turning dark chocolate-brown with age.

“Field Mushrooms grow on damp patches of grass during autumn and winter. These mushrooms must always smell like that classic white-button mushroom smell, and if they smell like anything else, throw them out, because these mushrooms have a toxic relative called the Yellow Stainer (Agaricus xanthoderma) – which bruises and stains yellow on its flesh, as well as smelling strongly of phenol or disinfectant chemicals,” he said.

He advises to always check for yellow staining and an unpleasant smell if you come across white mushrooms with pink-to-brown gills growing on grass.

“Do not ever pick and consume old, rotting mushrooms. Only fresh specimens should be collected. Do not ever pick mushrooms while still in their “button” stage because one cannot clearly see the gills. If you happen to consume an unknown mushroom, take it with you and head to the nearest hospital for checks. Always err on the side of caution when it comes to collecting mushrooms,” he said.

For more information about mushroom foraging email Justin on