Archive for the ‘Mushrooms’ Category

In partial explanation for the dearth of posts over the last year or so, new projects have been afoot. It has included more doing and less writing about it, but also a new project with filmmaker Luke Rosen. The first short video is on foraging pine forest mushrooms in NSW, with more to come on sea snails and urchins, acorn foraging and wild greens. From there, who knows? We’ve got some hunting footage in the can, but it is strangely taboo viewing in Australia – perhaps as hunter who has been a vegetarian except for hunted meat for 25 years, we might actually be able to get to the nub of the fact that it is the closest we can get to where ethical meat comes from. We also haven’t really touched on growing at home, beekeeping or chooks; and we’re largely leaving fishing to the massive section of the internet and other media already dedicated to it. That still leaves an enormous amount of wild food to cover – stay tuned (on the new site).

I have also started a major challenge of living on wild and homegrown food only for a year with the exception of just ten ingredients. This is written up on the new website, with more posts to come. Head on over and check it out HERE.




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Button saffron milk cap mushrooms emerging from the pine forest floor

Button saffron milk cap mushrooms emerging from the pine forest floor

[UPDATE: Check out new info page HERE and video HERE]

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).

Harvested button saffron milk caps (Lactarius deliciousus)

Harvested button saffron milk caps (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.

Button milk caps transport well - you can't stack big specimens like this without a lot of bruising

Button milk caps transport well – you can’t stack big specimens like this without a lot of bruising

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.

Pan-fried button saffron milk caps

Pan-fried button saffron milk caps

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!

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Feral celery (Apium graveolens)

Feral celery (Apium graveolens) is something that I didn’t really expect to find while foraging, but there it was in the same patch of damp bush as the asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) that I didn’t expect to find either. In contrast to the meagre asparagus harvest, the celery is there in huge quantities.

The spot is a reserve in Quakers Hill, in the damp soil where water backs up in a swampy spread, queuing to get through a single culvert under the railway. Decent clean bush this, unlike a nearby celery source at Seven Hills that I’m told surrounds a wetland created to hold back heavy metal laden sediment – and yet the story goes that a local restaurant harvests there regularly. Goes to show that you want to know the history of where you are foraging (and perhaps dining in Seven Hills). The convenient thing with the recent spot at least is that I was there for an archaeological assessment that I had preceded with research on land use history. I trust this dirt.

Feral celery seems to prefer what Australians would nearly call a swamp; in wetter parts of the world they probably just call it soil.

The challenges when faced with more of something than you know what to do with are twofold: First to think of new ways of using or preserving it; and secondly, to resist the temptation to take more than you need (or, as is too often the case, can find the time to process). Perhaps I could have been more imaginative, but with a good bay tree (Laurus nobilis) closer to home also pushing out wonderful fresh growth, stock seemed easiest. With this wiry strong flavoured wild celery (almost like lovage (Levisticum officinale)), and in the absence of the sweetening buffer of carrots or onions, it is an almost bitter kind of stock carrying a strong herbiness.

A simple stock of celery and bay (Laurus nobilis)

And here is the twist – with the stock portioned out for freezing, I opened the chest freezer to find a meltdown. The freezer switch is at ground level and has a light, normally covered and hidden, but not when the 3 year old Boy appears to have found it some days previously and so not when I found it in the off position. With a lot of mass in there, everything was still half frozen, but some of it too long in there already for me to want to risk re-freezing. One roo tail and one roo leg to be precise; the fruit will be fine; 2 fish were consigned to bait; the last of Autumn’s dried  mushrooms (slippery jack (Suillus luteus) and saffron milk cap (Lactarius deliciosus)) could have stayed in but came out to join the stew.

Stew for which a rich herby stock, conveniently enough, was ready and waiting. And for which everything but the passata was foraged.

Kangaroo (Macropus giganteus) leg and tail meat (or possibly red-necked wallaby (Macropus rufogriseus))

Kangaroo and forest mushroom stew in celery and bay stock and passata

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The field mushroom, Agaricus campestris

The field mushroom (Agaricus campestris) is easy to get right: when genuinely pre-armed with the right knowledge (see list below), identification can be easy; when taken home it is so similar to its domestic cousin (the ‘common’ mushroom, Agaricus bisporus) that it is easy to cook (if a bit moister); and this then makes it easy to serve even to people who would otherwise abstain from a wild fungus. That said, it can also be relatively easy to get wrong.

The death cap mushroom (Amanita phalloides), which kills more people worldwide than any other, looks a bit like a field mushroom. Recent deaths in Canberra, and in other documented cases with Asian foragers, can be attributed to the similarity of the death cap to the Asian paddy straw mushroom (Volvariella volvacea) more than to field mushrooms, but confusion with field mushrooms has also occurred. The yellow staining mushroom (Agaricus xanthodermus) might also catch you out and make you sick although at least not dead. The literature suggests that there are a few more similar types that occur in Australia like the European blusher (Amanita rubescens), but it remains that with the right precautions, it is certainly possible to distinguish these from field mushrooms. With the overriding maxim ‘if in doubt, go without’ I am now confident in a field mushroom using the following checklist (this is NOT all you need to know, but should hopefully help):

Harvested field mushrooms

  • It looks like a common mushroom, albeit maybe larger, with an essentially white top that may get grey-brownish with age but not any type of yellowish and certainly not at all greenish. Richard Mabey, in the foraging bible Food for Free, suggests that the best place to study for identifying field mushrooms (presumably excluding being alongside an experienced gatherer) is at the mushroom shelf in the grocers.
  • It is growing in a paddock where herbivores crop the grass and enrich it with manure (most commonly cows, but also horses, sheep and I’ve even done well where kangaroos do the job) – not always the case (lawns can also have them), but a safe precaution.
  • There are a few of them in the same area and which can be seen to show that the mycelium (the underground fungal network from which the mushrooms are just fruiting bodies) is in the dirt under grass and not associated with tree roots. It is probably easiest to just have no trees nearby, particularly introduced ones, and especially but not exclusively oak;
  • The gills are at the very lightest a pinkish brown in the youngest ones and definitely a dark brown in older specimens, and when pressed on paper, the ‘spore print’ is also dark (white gills and spore print are a characteristic of death caps as well the ‘destroying angel’ (various other Amanita spp.) that occurs in other parts of the world).
  • The stipe (or stem) is white with a single thin ring of skin where the cap once attached. It definitely does not have a sheath at the base;
  • When the stem is cut it stains at most faintly red-brownish and definitely not yellow (as in the yellow staining mushroom), nor pink and not at all blueish (like the powerfully hallucinogenic ‘gold top’ magic mushroom of warm humid cow fields, Psilocybe cubensis);
  • When cut, and also importantly after some time stored, it does not have a notable smell (death caps are described as smelling from ‘honey sweet’ to ‘objectionably sweet’ and yellow staining mushrooms as ‘phenolic or soapy’ especially at the base and noticeably with cooking).

Driving in to the cabin last weekend, a few white buttons were showing in a neighbour’s paddock – in a corner where cows often congregate and therefore manure. Speaking to another neighbour I suggested they would likely reveal themselves to be field mushrooms and that I would get them on the way out; he added that he was entirely certain they were field mushrooms and that he’s been eating them from there for years. On the way out they had opened up ready for harvest. I cut them, check for a ring but no sheath, dark brown gills, dark spore print, no odour, no staining and general similarity to button mushrooms.

In the past, before I had gotten the mushrooming bug, I have gone past many mushrooms I thought were probably field mushrooms but left them appropriately untouched because probably was as close my knowledge could get me. I have since armed myself with enough knowledge to confidently take at least the most obvious. My first field mushrooms were on the farm where my father grew up. The most recent before these were at the farm my mother grew up on. I grew up in the city, but for my son at least, his first field mushrooms were from the land he will hopefully grow up with. Last Monday, in a vegie bolognaise with noodles.

Field mushrooms before harvesting – the right gills, stem and staining yet to be confirmed

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The slippery jack, Suillus luteus

Wingello State Forest, the ‘Please be careful’ sign not as ominous as at Belanglo

[Update: Check out new info page HERE and recent video HERE]

Having picked up mushrooming fever this autumn I have ventured out to broaden my horizons, considering slippery jacks (Suillus luteus) as the most likely candidate as they get the most mentions online (example). Heading down to visit a mate in Wingello for lunch and some fishing, I stop at Belanglo on the way for some saffron milk caps (Lactarius deliciosus) and in the afternoon we head out for the nearby Wingello State Forest. If I were I hunting the poisonous fly agaric (Amanita muscaria), Wingello would appear to be the place to go.

The fly agaric, Amanita muscaria

… and if I knew what these were and knew they were edible, they would have offered a huge haul. Maybe it is an edible oyster mushroom (Pleurotus spp.) but it remains more likely that it is a ghost mushroom (Omphalotus nidiformis), in which case it would make me sick, so pending any expert guidance out there just one new mushroom safely at a time for me I think.

Delicious or deadly?

Saffron milk caps were not as abundant as in previous outings in other forests, but the positive side was that the slippery jacks  did indeed come through. In retrospect, the trees I was searching under were probably too young for milk caps as I have since read that trees over 10 years old are best, but I had to learn that at some stage and now I have.  For the developing novice, slipperies seem to be the best next step after milk caps, being reputedly common and similarly easy to identify. For one thing, they are really are slippery, positively slimy in fact (at least in the current wet); and the undersides have a very characteristic pored structure.

More slimy than just slippery

The pored underside of a slippery jack

At the first stop we gather a few and head deeper into the forest for more. Passing some grey nomads camped in a clearing, we stop to ask if they are mushrooming in hope of pointers to a good spot. They weren’t, but were interested in seeing what we were after and I show them the slipperies and some of the milk caps from Belanglo, before heading off. Driving back past them 20 minutes later with nothing more for our efforts, they flag us down to ask if what they had gathered around their camp were the right ones. And they were – a good haul of both types. I tell them with complete confidence that the milk caps are fine to eat, but that having not yet tried the slipperies I wasn’t prepared to vouch for them with certainty. So they gave theirs to me. I reckon now that the camping areas in the State Forests – nothing more than grassy clearings with a toilet – might generally make good targets as they seem often to be ringed by some very old stands that are probably left alone longer by the loggers. We suddenly have a respectable enough load to call it a day, with a 2 year old boy in the back seat already being called on for an unfairly long spell in the booster seat.

Peeling a slippery jack seems easier than some say

Home, with the internet at hand, I peel, slice and fry one and am not enormously impressed. With butter, garlic and parsley it could no doubt be fantastic, as they turn out be quite absorbent little sponges of things, but that says more about those additions than it does for slippery jacks. The peeling is something that some seem to recommend because the skins are said to be a purgative, while others seem not to bother and feel it is too much effort. I found it very easy with a paring knife so I peeled the lot. Apart from the taste tester, I then sliced them for drying. Lacking (but coveting) a dehydrater, I did it in the oven.

Slippery jacks drying…

… and slippery jacks dried

Being related to boletes, of which Boletus edulis (cep or porcini mushroom) does so well dried, drying for later use in soup or at least rehydrating in stock seems the best way to go, particularly with the more palatable saffron milk caps likely to be on offer for fresh mushrooms whenever you might be getting slipperies.

Slippery jack, suillus luteus

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The saffron milk cap, Lactarius deliciosus

[UPDATE: Check out new info page HERE and video HERE]

In a way that is probably all too typically Australian, I have not been much of a mushroom forager in the past. Fungi are without doubt the weakest part of my foraging game. A few field mushrooms (Agaricus campestris) have passed my way; those least challenging of all with their obvious similarity to the common cultivated type (Agaricus bisporus). One foray in England brought a few of their woodland treats home once, but which we then failed to identify with enough surety to eat. And I will confess to some youthful dalliances with the hallucinogenic kind (Psilocybe cubensis) from North Coast cow paddocks. But somehow I managed to spend far too long of the common view that we are simply not a country with enough edible mushrooms to make it a worthwhile pursuit. I have rarely been so wrong.

Perhaps with this the wettest autumn in memory around here I have probably picked a very good year to start, because my first foray into serious mushrooming has been a phenomenal success. With saffron milk caps (Lactarius deliciosus) to be precise. Last Sunday evening, with fading light and just enough time for the briefest foray, the beginning was at the Vulcan State Forest just out of Black Springs. Within a few metres and a few seconds of entering the forest, there they were, so thick on the ground that all but the best looking were ignored and the basket still easily filled within perhaps ten minutes.

A full basket within minutes and metres of entering the forest

Reaching the cabin that night in the dark and the last couple of hundred metres on foot with the car stuck in the wet I don’t start on eating them; that last vestige of caution and neophobia holding me back when so far from town and uncertain of the car’s abilities. The following morning however it takes only daylight and greater impatience to push me over the edge, and to push one thinly sliced cap into a pan. And it was delicious; only delicately flavoured in my view but wonderfully textured and cooking to a beautiful rich orange. On reflection it seems to me that the saffron milk cap is the perfect novice mushroom (as also found by others) and probably the most popular around here (another account here). Perhaps most importantly, it is just so distinctive and identifiable; plus it is great eating; and to top it off it is wonderfully abundant at the right time (Autumn) and place (pine forest).

Sliced saffron milk caps

In a hot pan and butter, all too easy

The next day we make our way back to Sydney with a stop at Belanglo State Forest to top the basket up. After sorting the haul in the morning I learned why you see foragers like River Cottage’s John Wright being so careful and delicate with their cargo – bruised mushrooms lose a lot of appeal and they do it quite quickly and easily. A few trashed ones thrown out, I am actually glad to have cause to get more. Belanglo didn’t seem as well stocked as Vulcan, but it was still very easy pickings and somehow a more open and inviting forest to walk into (strange though that is to say of a place of such serial killing infamy).

So now I have it, the mushrooming bug, and I already find it impossible to imagine that any autumn will pass again in which I do not venture into the pine forests. There is a crucial tipping point with fears like those we have about wild mushrooms where rationality wins out. To now branch out to slippery Jacks (Suillus Luteus) or boletes (Boletus portentosus), should I be lucky enough to find them, seems but a meagre challenge. On Tuesday it’s Penrose and Wingello State Forests for more.

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