If you’re like us and enjoy nothing more than taking a leisurely ramble in the bush, then coming into autumn probably feels a lot like coming out of hibernation. We emerge from our dark, air conditioned dens, pull our sensible shoes on and exhale all at once: walking season at last. But autumn doesn’t just bring crisp hiker-friendly temperatures and a renewed sense of adventure. Late February marks the beginning of wild mushroom season, when autumn’s intermittent sun and rain brings the pine plantations all around NSW into bloom.
Mushroom foraging may sound a little, well, kooky, but it does have a cult following in Australia. And if you were to drive along the forestry roads you’d be certain to see cars randomly pulled to the side, a sure sign that there are eager mushroom hunters hidden in the pines.
For our European community, they’re just doing as they have always done; foraging for pine mushrooms is a simple family ritual learned from childhood. Chefs on the other hand, look to the forests for exotic ingredients – fresh, local, hand-picked delicacies – that can’t be found in any supermarket. And then there’s the curious few who, just like us, see mushroom gathering a bit like fishing: a unique way to stretch those legs, get the kids out amongst nature, and maybe even score a free lunch!
“Just being in a forest off-trail is a new experience for many families and they often comment that it feels magical,” says Margaret Mossakowska, who was first introduced to foraging as a three-year-old in Poland, and has been going on mushroom picking missions in Australia for the last 25 years.
“The silence, interrupted only by bird calls, the thrill of finding edibles like mushrooms, apples and blackberries in the wild, seeing animal tracks and wombat holes while slowly walking and searching for mushrooms... all this close contact with nature is very calming.”
For kids, a day foraging doesn’t just enchant the imagination and stir excitement as they stumble across freckly red toadstools, pine cones, fairy circles and wood mushrooms the size of their own head.
“They learn quickly about respecting nature and not destroying what isn’t useful to humans” Margaret says. “I always explain that everything in nature has its place and there are animals that will eat what we cannot.”
So, what can we eat?
While there are loads edible wild mushroom species found in the NSW pine plantations, there are just as many poisonous look-alikes that require a trained eye to identify. That’s why rookie mushroom pickers are encouraged to only forage for the two most distinctive edible species: Slippery Jacks, which have sponge-like gills and brown, slimy caps (yum!), and Saffron Milk Caps, which ooze a bright orange milk when cut and have billowy pale orange caps that can grow to the size of a dinner plate.
“These mushrooms can’t really be mistaken for anything else in the forest, and so even beginners can easily learn to tell them apart from other species,” Margaret says.
Of course, the absolute safest way to learn about foraging is to go with an experienced person who can review your haul to make sure nothing nasty has snuck into your basket. It’s also worth noting that photos and guide books don’t show the full range of shapes and colours one mushroom species can display in the wild. So if nothing else, commit the forager’s mantra to memory: when in doubt, go without!
Or as Margaret says, better safe than sick!
Where to forage?
Originally carried over from Europe on pine seedlings, edible wood mushrooms have a symbiotic relationship with their host trees, which, lucky for us, makes locating areas to harvest them quite easy. Oberon, with its 40,000 hectares of state pine forest, is a mushroom hunter’s haven – even when the word gets out, there’s still plenty of forest floor to go around. Belanglo State Forest south-west of Sydney is also good for a forage, while Victorians can try their luck wandering in the pine plantations of the Macedon Ranges and Mornington Peninsula.
Wood mushrooms live underground for at least ten years before sprouting from the soil, so for any chance at scoring the motherlode, you’ll need to drive down the forestry roads until you find an area of old growth forest, ideally with no-one else around. If you time it right and head there a few days after rain, you shouldn’t have to wander too deep into the forest before you hit the jackpot.
But as with any nature-based activity, Margaret’s secret to success is “go with an open mind.”
“Nature doesn't necessarily cooperate with plans made by humans, and foraging isn’t like shopping – you won’t always find what you expect to find in the same place you saw it last time. But you can always harvest things other than mushrooms, wild apples and blackberries for example.”
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Foraging like a pro
Becoming an expert pine mushroom gatherer doesn’t begin and end with your ID checks. Here, Margaret provides a few tips that foragers should be mindful of, to help protect and preserve the forest floor.
When harvesting mushrooms, use a small sharp knife to cut the stalks just above the ground – don’t pull them out or dig them out. Cover the cut stalk with organic material lying around such as grass or pine needles to protect the fungal network (mycelium) from drying out. Don’t dig or root around as this also damages the mycelium.
Leave old, large mushrooms alone – they’re not very tasty and through releasing spores, they propagate mushrooms for another year’s harvest.
Don’t kick or squash inedible mushrooms; while not useful to humans, they all play parts in the forest ecosystem and feed other organisms.
As always, take your litter home. The most dangerous rubbish is glass. Aside from broken glass potentially injuring wildlife and other pickers, bottles act like lenses concentrating sunrays and can easily start forest fires when the conditions are dry.
Wear enclosed walking shoes or good gumboots to walk on forest floor, long-sleeved shirts and long pants to protect from scratches and leeches, a rain jacket for cloudy days and a hat and sunscreen for sunny ones.
Invite your friends. Not only will they (hopefully) help you in the event of an accident like a sprained ankle or getting lost, it’s also more fun foraging in a group!
Ready, set, forage
For something different to your usual bushwalking trails that the whole family can enjoy, wild mushroom season offers a slice of the European countryside only an hour or two from your front door. It’s a chance to wander aimlessly off the trail, taking in nature’s tiny wonders and maybe even throwing an impromptu picnic – take your camp stove, butter and garlic along and you can whip up some fried mushroom on sourdough right there beside the forest.
You’ll no doubt have plenty more than you can eat in one sitting, but any leftovers can be dried, turned into concentrated stock, fermented or pickled. And even if you’re not a fungi fan for culinary purposes (it’s a polarising food group after all), the pine forests are quite simply wondrous places to be when colourful mushrooms and pine cones are carpeting the ground – and not just for those among us who still believe in pixies (although that certainly helps!)
We’d like to thank Margaret Mossakowska of Moss House for her help with this article. Margaret has been hunting down wood mushrooms and other wild edibles in NSW for 25 years, and runs tours during March, April and May, as well as loads of natural living workshops all year round. Her website also has a number of recipes for preparing and preserving your haul.
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