There is an idea among some mushroom foragers that one should not take the smaller specimens because they will be bigger for the next person. But what if there isn’t likely to be a next person in your ‘secret’ deep corner of the forest? And if there is no rain on the way and they won’t be getting much bigger anyway? With these justifications added to few options other than going home empty handed, I came home recently with a modest haul of button versions of saffron milk cap mushrooms (Lactarius deliciosus).
Where I went wrong to start with was assuming that heavy coastal rain in the week before would have carried through more than it did to my inland destination of Belanglo State Forest (the right information was just the internet away and I didn’t check). Instead, they had had light showers that hadn’t soaked in enough to prompt much of a fruiting frenzy among the fungal mycelia in the soil and pine roots below.
It was a good learning experience though, and here is the tip from it – drainage lines and south and east facing gentle slopes where moisture holds better for the forming fungal fruiting bodies will still yield a few when only minimal rain has been through; and fire trail verges where drains get carved by graders into the forest edges achieve the same effect of concentrating limited water and bringing forth some mushrooms. Truth be told, there was one more option of getting out and covering far more forest that I did, but my fellow forager wasn’t quite up for that – largely on account of being three years old.
The end result is that I would definitely back the harvesting of small saffron milk caps during drier times or when rainfall has been only quite recent. While I suspect an Iron Chef jury would, I can’t stand up and say the flavour was that different, but my feeling is that the win for buttons would really be on texture and being able to integrate better with other ingredients as a tight package that shows off the colour and exoticness of the saffron while being able to be enjoyed separately but not as the exclusive focus of the dish (they are good enough to do it, but not good enough to warrant it every time). Other thoughts:
- They don’t get huge anyway when it is dry; the few that were giving fruiting a go weren’t getting much over 10cm diameter (compared with >20cm in good wet conditions) without being hard, dry, insect-chomped and no good for the basket anyway;
- As buttons, saffron milk caps store and keep a lot better than as big open caps. These are mushrooms that bruise easily to an unappealing green, and while the gills are still a little tucked under, they will refrigerate well and unblemished for twice the time (maybe 6 days instead of 3 at good quality, more as simply edible); while they freeze (once slightly cooked) and dehydrate well enough, fresh remains best;
- You don’t actually gain as much weight with cap diameter as you would think – a 5cm dense little saffron milk cap is not far off the same amount of mushroom as a 10cm one, just with more consumer-friendly packaging (probably why buttons and larger flat commercial mushrooms are often similarly priced despite being the same fungus).
We remain blessed in Sydney to have an under-appreciated mushroom bonanza every autumn an hour or two from town; such that it is more a function of rainfall than foraging pressure that determines our chances of success. Perhaps when the crowds catch on, picking buttons might be rude, but for now, it is a delicacy that the resource can bear and that foragers can freely savour.
Note: This was written a couple of weeks ago; if you go the forests over a week following big autumn rains it would be a very different (and better) story in terms of getting big mushrooms (and probably more slippery jacks (Suillus luteus). As it happens, that means right now!