This week Delheim wine estate is focusing on the delectable exotic mushroom, in running a Mushroom Week in its restaurant in conjunction with Nouvelle Mushrooms, the only commercial producer of exotic mushrooms in South Africa, and sole supplier of this delicacy to Woolworths.

I was part of a group of journalists (those from The Star and the Sunday Times flying down from Johannesburg especially for the event) and bloggers that was invited by Erica Meles Public Relations to attend an outing to Delheim yesterday, which kicked off with an interesting talk by Dr Adriaan Smit of the University of Stellenbosch, a mycologist and MD of the SA Gourmet Mushroom Academy.  He impressed with his knowledge of poisonous and edible mushrooms, giving tips about how one ensures that one only picks and eats edible mushrooms.  There are about 1,5 million mushrooms species, and Dr Smit recommended a number of steps for aspirant mushroom gatherers: read every book on the topic (he had five local books), join the Edible Fungi Association, collect with an expert, don’t rely on photograph matching with books only, smell the mushrooms, scratch the stem for colour changes, rub the flesh to check the texture, taste only a tiny piece and spit it out without swallowing the juices, make a spore print on a sheet of white and black paper or on aluminium foil, use chemical tests, eat only one variety at a time, never eat wild mushrooms raw, and always keep some uncooked mushrooms on the side, for a test in case one gets ill.  

For successful foraging his first recommendation is to take along a magnifying glass, to check the mushroom for spores, gills and teeth.  So, for example, the pine ring mushroom must emit an orange-coloured milk to confirm that it is not its poisonous look-alike.  Mushrooms with a white cap, white gills, free unattached gills, a white spore print, with a ring on the stalk, that are small and brown, and/or have a swollen stalk base could be poisonous.  If one has signs of mushroom poisoning, call the Tygerberg Poison Information Center at tel (021) 931-6129.  Dr Smit loves mushrooms so much that his boutique hotel outside Stellenbosch is called The Wild Mushroom, and each of the six suites is inspired by and decorated in the theme of a mushroom variety.

After the talk, guests were taken on a walk to the pine forest on the farm, to look for wild mushrooms (mainly Boletus Edulis, or better known as cep or porcini, and pine ring) with Dr Smit and Nora Sperling-Thiel, daughter of farm owner Spatz Sperling, who is knowledgeable about mushrooms too.  I had a long chat to son Victor Sperling, who told me that about half of the 365 hectare farm is planted under vine and the balance has pine forests.  The pines were planted by Spatz Sperling, possibly as a reminder of his country of origin, on slopes that are too steep to plant vines.  Victor told me that the pine forestry is not really economically viable, but it is a good way for the farm to meet the requirements of the Biodiversity Wine Initiative, in that the shade created by the trees prevents the reseeding of alien plants.  The Delheim focus is on ‘unpretentious winemaking’, says its flyer, and Victor told me they try to change little as their customers like their wines as they are.  They try to make 100% cultivars such as Merlot, Shiraz, and Cabernet Sauvignon, a much bigger challenge, he said, but they do make some blends too.  Brenda van Niekerk is the winemaker, while Victor is the viticulturist and production manager.  His sister Nora heads sales. Victor deplored that restaurants do not support the Stellenbosch Wine Route and its wines.

Fresh out of the forest, we were taken to the cellar meeting room, in which Schalk de Beer, MD of Nouvelle Mushrooms, took us through a presentation on exotic mushrooms and their nutritional benefits.  The company was started in 2006, and currently it produces 2 tons of exotic mushrooms per week, using 10 tons of woody substrates.  About 60 % of the mushrooms are sold through Woolworths, and the balance to restaurants and hotels.  Woolworths currently has a special offer of two punnets of exotic mushrooms for R30.  It has a production facility in the Hemel en Aarde Valley outside Hermanus, and prides itself on its distribution efficiency, given the perishability of its products.  Not known to all is the health benefits of mushrooms, Schalk told us, generically being high in protein.  The exotic mushroom varieties that the company supplies are the following:

*   Shiitake mushrooms are rich in cholesterol-lowering properties, and contain anti-oxidants.  This variety enhances the flavour of the foods that it is served with.  It is the biggest seller in the East.

*   King oyster mushrooms contain anti-oxidants.  They are ideal for Italian dishes.

*   Enoki mushrooms are mainly used in soups in Japan, and look attractive when used in salads. 

*   Shimeji mushrooms can be used as antipasto, or for a pasta sauce, due to their aroma. 

Lunch was served and not unsurprisingly the three-course menu only consisted of mushrooms, paired with Delheim wines, reflecting the menu which Delheim is offering for Mushroom Week running until Sunday 10 July, at R120, inclusive of three glasses of wine, and coffee, offering exceptional value.  I loved the refreshing Paw Paw and Shimeji mushroom salad, an unusual combination served with a light lemon dressing.  The alternative starter offered is Baby spinach salad with seared King oyster mushrooms.  Both starters were paired with Delheim’s Sauvignon Blanc 2010.

The main course was a choice of Risotto with dried Boletus mushrooms, and Tagliatelle with Nouvelle Exotic Mix mushrooms, and guests were offered a choice of Delheim’s Merlot 2007 or the lightly-wooded Chardonnay Sur Lie 2010.  Coffee was served with a Shiitake mushroom and chocolate cookie, paired with the Delheim Gewürztraminer.

I was lucky to sit at the same table as Schalk de Beer, and Spatz Sperling and his wife Vera.  Spatz Sperling is 81 years old, and is an icon in the wine industry, making his first wines 60 years ago on the farm which was originally owned by Hans Hoheisen since 1938, married to his aunt Adele, after whom the farm was named, and having created the country’s first wine route, being the Stellenbosch Wine Route with Frans Malan and Neil Joubert 40 years ago. When asked what changes he has seen in the wine industry over the years, he laughed, and said that it has just got better, and cellar buildings have become more attractive. Vera Sperling told us about the laws that governed wine tasting in early days – a minimum of 12 wines had to be bought, one had to receive a KC6 form as proof of a legal sale if one was stopped by the police, no wine was allowed to be bottled without a ‘white’ person present, and one had to buy wine from the cellar and bring it to the restaurant on a wine estate, as restaurants on wine estates were not allowed to sell wine.  Delheim was the first wine estate to serve food almost 38 years ago, serving a choice of cheeses and patés initially.  A year later Blaauwklippen and Hartenberg followed suit.

Delheim, Knorhoek Road, off R45, Stellenbosch.  Tel (021) 888-4607.  www.delheim.com.  Monday – Sunday. 

Nouvelle Mushrooms, Tel (021) 887-5593. www.nouvelle.za.net

Mushroom Academy, Tel (021) 881-3586.  www.mushroomacademy.com

Disclosure: All guests received an information pack, which also contained a bottle of Delheim Merlot 2007, and a punnet of Nouvelle Mushrooms, with a collection of pine needles and oak leaves from the farm.

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com  Twitter:@WhaleCottage