Monday, May 10, 2010

Big game hunters

It is a Sunday morning with a new season’s crisp bite in the air, rain soaking the mountain. We jump out of bed and while everyone else in Cape Town pulls their duvets up higher, we pull on our waterproof boots and rain jackets. Time to hunt!
It’s one of the big pleasures of the ‘secret season’, when rain slowly turns the mountain and the slopes emerald green and the first streams of crystal white water splash down summer’s dry ravines.
Our prey is elusive, hiding under leaves and behind fallen tree trunks, blending in with the browns and dark greens of the forest. But we sniff them out, hunt them down and eat them as soon as we get home.
We are mushroom hunters.
There’s a feeling of competitiveness in the air as Jannie and I stop at the Tokai Arboretum. We check out other people walking up the path, watching carefully to see if they have bags or containers of any sort. These days more and more people are mushroom hunters and we don’t want to end up in the same patch of forest as them, staring them down over the stem of a mushroom.
It’s our first hunt of the winter. This is the best time. When the memory of summer is still on your brown skin and you don’t yet have that bleached and soggy feeling that comes after a long winter. We’re excited about the arrival of winter, the change in the air, the autumn blue sky when the sun breaks through, the golden leaves dropping from oak trees. We’ve ordered our first bakkie load of wood and already our wood stove is blazing every evening.
When Heine and Martine arrive we trundle up the Elephant’s Eye path through the forest. Soon we’re spreading out, like detectives looking for clues in a BBC crime series. First we find pepper mushrooms. Not poisonous, just not edible. Many useless pepper mushrooms, but lovely like a Victorian girl with their red blush on porcelain white skins.
Then Martine has a hit: “Isn’t this a pine ring?” We break it off and there is the orange ring in the stem, making pine rings the easiest mushrooms to hunt. A dead cert. Now that we’ve found one, we find more and more, in clumps, in clusters, on their own. We cut them off at the stem, hoping to make sure that next year there’ll be more.
The big prize in the forest is a cep (bolitis) mushroom. Far more scarce and much bigger than pine rings.
Suddenly Heine is diving towards a mother of a mushroom standing proudly on its own on the forest floor of pine needles. It’s a beautiful, perfect cep. Brand new, uneaten by insects, not yet soggy from the rain. This one must have been born in yesterday’s patch of sunshine. Ceps have a thick layer of sponge underneath them, also making it a dead cert once you know what it looks like. Everyone knows the story of old mushroom hunters and bold mushroom hunters, but no old, bold mushroom hunters. We are not old and we are not bold, so we’re taking no chances.
Tokai forest is a joy on this rainy, Sunday morning. We are ziplocked into our waterproof gear, walking up the forest roads, bags of mushrooms in our hands and the smell of new, wet earth in our nostrils. The rain wafts down between the trees in fine silverwhite sprays of water. The first streams are just starting to gurgle through the forest. A frog jumps into the water.
It’s teatime. We sit on wet moss covered rocks and drink our sweet spicy chai from a flask, dipping mother-in-law’s best rusks in the world.
Tree bark glows in the morning winter light, trees sway above us and the mat of pine needles is soft below our feet.
It’s winter. And winter is best, for now.

No comments: