It’s funny what you miss.
When I was a kid nothing worse could happen on the weekend than being told we were going mushroom hunting. It meant hiking all Saturday morning with my parents and missing the best cartoons. I’d sulk like only a 5-year-old can, lagging behind and kicking at the path. But I couldn’t help cheering up when we actually found a mushroom. There’s something intoxicating about spotting that little brown cap peeking out from under the pine needles and realising you’ve found dinner.
23 years later I started mushroom foraging again.
It’s hard to know exactly why. I suppose I missed the forest. Maybe I missed my childhood.
My mother learned about mushrooms from her father – a short, wildly curious Lithuanian man who escaped the Holocaust with his family as a child. She loved him very deeply but they had a complicated relationship. His children were important to him, but from what I understand he struggled to be a good father. It was something he never learned from his parents, who were so desperate to survive this strange new country that they didn’t have time for their children. And while to the world my grandfather was charismatic, warm, interested and charming, at home he was also anxious and angry.
When my grandmother died it broke his heart. He missed her. He missed family. And he looked for the security and warmth he was missing somewhere both familiar and familial, when he started a relationship with one of my mother’s close childhood friends.
That was very hard on the family. We had a strained dinner with them one night and I remember afterwards watching my mother cry in the bathroom as she brushed her teeth and got ready for bed.
I hated my grandfather that night. I wished he would die. I went to bed that night reciting it over and over in my head like a prayer.
And then almost magically, a year or two later he was diagnosed with cancer and he did die.
I was 11 when that happened, but as I grew up I came to see my grandfather as a person – a victim of his circumstances rather than an enemy. The stories about him intrigued me. He sounded so interesting – butch and independent – fiercely interested and utterly seduced by life’s pleasures. He cooked, he hunted for new ingredients, he foraged, he dived, he wrote about wine. There were so many interests we share now. This person who had once been a threat to the happiness of my family became a kind of secret friend – someone who I wished I could talk to and argue with and learn from. I missed him. We all did.
As I’ve grown up I’ve gravitated towards the things he loved. I dive for alikreukel and crayfish in the pools where he dived, just down the road from his old house in Vermont. I explore the same caves and dive the same sloots. Memories flood back of him taking me to the rock pools and teaching me what you could touch and what you could eat.
I suppose I started mushroom foraging again in part for him. It’s not just the mushrooms though, it’s the hunt – that rush of adrenaline as you spot something hidden in the shadows, and the joy as you discover that not only is it the right species, but it’s in perfect condition.
In the beginning, I just went on odd autumn weekends. Asking the family where he had gone and following in his footsteps, discovering new forests and new (to me) species.
On the anniversary of his birthday I woke up really early, arriving at the Cecelia cork forest before dawn. There was this incredible musty, damp smell in the air. It was my first time there and I remember thinking “This is mushroom country”. Like magic, within five minutes I’d found a whole family of fresh porcini (Boletus edulis) – almost 2 kilos! It felt like his gift.
Like my grandfather, my passion quickly grew to obsession. I went into the forest every weekend, sometimes going at night during the week or with a torch before work. And like any addict, soon the old highs weren’t enough. I didn’t want just one mushroom on a walk, I needed two or five or ten!
I’d spot holes in the pine needles where someone else had been foraging before me, and it would drive me mad. I’d take it as a personal insult. How the hell do they always get here before me? Who are they? When do they look? How were there always more holes than mushrooms?
And with that anxiety, the fantasy – imagine I was the one who made all the holes. Imagine that I got there early enough to take home that extravagant bounty.
I started scouring mushroom hunting online forums and blogs for clues, searching Instagram for other people’s mushroom posts trying to figure out where they’d been. My best friend Rose joined me in my obsession and together we’d spend the week plotting hikes and hunts in uncharted territories. It was through Rose that we discovered a Facebook group – The Facebook group – where all the secrets might be held. Focusing exclusively on mushroom foraging in Cape Town, the group has one rule: you can ask for advice but you can NOT ask people to share their hunting spots. Though they always post tantalising pictures of their finds for the community to peruse.
Are those oak leaves on thick grass? You’d wonder. Is that the edge of a tarred road? Could this be near Stellenbosch? You’re just not allowed to ask. But if there were mushrooms to be found in the forest, you’d find out about it on the Facebook group first. And it was infuriating.
Every day there was at least one new post, and there was ALWAYS a smug little caption saying something like, “oh, just found these quite by accident next to the road” or “found these on a quick little walk” or “what a nice surprise – literally a 5 minute hike and look what I found.” Every day, week after week, updates on people’s “lovely surprise finds!” And then Rose and I would go out on the weekend and hike for HOURS and find holes. HOLES!
These were the people making those holes. These were the people going home with our bounties and acting like it was nothing but a happy accident. I’d wake up in the morning and the first thing I’d do was check the Facebook group on my phone. My girlfriend thought I was going insane. I probably was, shouting “Bastards!” at the top of my voice before it was even 8 o clock.
This went on for almost a year and only stopped when the mushroom season was well and truly over. But this year, as soon as autumn started gearing up so did my insanity. “HOLES!” I whispered under my breath as I drove past Newlands forest and saw people walking inside.
But the rains never came this year, and even on the Facebook group the posts all but disappeared. No one’s finding anything to brag about anymore. Not even on their “quick little walks.” And now, when I wake up in the morning and check my phone I don’t have a reason to yell “Bastards!” at the top of my lungs.
It’s funny what you miss.
Joshua de Kock is a writer, cook and nature enthusiast who would usually rather be diving for crayfish.