Welcome to the first post on my brand spanking new blog! It’s been a phenomenally long hiatus, but coding issues are (mostly) sorted, and I’m leaving my old blog Foraging Otaku behind and starting afresh with a new blog name – The Gourmet Forager.
I thought it was only befitting then that my first post be about foraging. I’ve always applied “foraging” in the abstract sense – that is, foraging for new eateries and destinations. A few months ago I went on my first proper foray into foraging – foraging for wild mushrooms – specifically saffron milkcaps. These mushrooms are also commonly known as pine mushrooms in Australia but a read through mushroom field guides or a quick search on the net will reveal that “pine mushrooms” is a generic term for mushrooms found in pine forests and will represent different mushroom varieties depending on where you are. So for the sake of distinction, I’ll use the term “saffron milkcap”.
My first foraging experience came about in an odd way. I spied some saffron milkcaps, in a grocery in Haberfield. I’d heard about these mushrooms from my friend KatieB wwhose mother picks them under pine trees around their home in the Blue Mountains. Not knowing anymore about them but significantly intrigued I immediately snapped them up and skipped home to the Co-pilot to show him my purchase as though I were a child showing off a shiny new toy.
The Co-pilot didn’t share my enthusiasm and looked at the orange-brown specimens dubiously. I dutifully ignored him and cooked them in the pan with a simple butter, garlic, parsley sauce and chicken stock for extra moisture since they didn’t seem to sweat as much as button mushrooms.
I found the mushrooms to be tasty and strongly flavoured in a meaty way. The texture was slightly dry and spongy and the Co-pilot wrinkled his nose at them, pushing them away. Naturally, I ate his portion as well. All was well until I woke up in the early hours of the next morning to use the bathroom.
Just as I turned to flush the toilet I was confronted with the horrifying sight of remarkably red urine. My first thought wasn’t the mushrooms as they didn’t seem to have enough red pigment in them to cause urine discolouration. As it was 5am in the morning my sleep fuzzy brain came to the natural conclusion that clearly my kidneys were liquefying and I was dying. Clearly.
Sitting alone and in the dark in my lounge room, I googled “kidney failure, urine discolouration”. After 20 minutes of anxious searching the possibility of food causing the disolouration presented itself again. Unconvinced but out of ideas I searched to see if the saffron milkcaps were to blame. And thankfully, the first link returned clearly stated “saffron milkcaps turn your urine red. Do not be alarmed”. Relief washed over me and I crawled back into bed.
But the seeds of curiosity had been set. My “near-death experience” rendered me suddenly obsessed with saffron milkcaps. I searched for every morsel of information about them and was determined to forage for my own, especially after having read about Michael Pollan’s mushrooming adventures in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I was disappointed to learn that there weren’t any established mushroom foraging tours in Sydney. But I did learn that you can mushrooming in the Oberon State Forests. After serendipitously stumbling upon a comprehensive mushroom hunting guide released by the River Cottage’s Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, a hero in slow, sustainable and organic food circles, I was set.
The Co-pilot recognised the crazed, obsessed look in my eye and relented, agreeing to drive the 5 hour round trip to Oberon so I could attempt to satisfy my obsession.
After a week of particularly heavy rain I declared it perfect mushrooming weather and dragged the patient Co-pilot along. Armed with my mushroom guide, a few knives, a box for all the mushrooms I was certain to find and some sustenance, we set off.
As we approached Oberon and plunged into curtains of wispy mist we kept our eyes peeled for mushrooms. Having now committed to the mushrooming trip, the Co-pilot transformed into an obsessed competitive mushroom hunter. He dubbed himself “Hawk Eyes” and started scanning the roads for signs of mushrooms, drawing on decades of insanely competitive family Easter Egg hunting experience. It wasn’t long before Hawk Eyes delivered when he spotted some white mushrooms on the side of the road. Using my trusty book, I positively identified them to be field mushrooms. They weren’t great specimens as they were water-logged and bug-ridden but they were our first find, so we dutifully picked them and kept them.
Soon after we stopped at what looked like a good mushroom hunting pine forest. No sooner than we’d stopped the car the Co-pilot was off and striding with competitive purpose, in Hawk Eyes mode. I on the otherhand was just a wee bit overwhelmed by the magical beauty of my surroundings. Standing in the middle of thick pines, sprawling blackberry brambles at my feet and mist falling gently around me in the forest. All was silent save for the gentle patter on raindrops on leaves and the gentle crunch of pine needles and twigs underfoot. I was more than content to take my time and soak up the unusual and rare opportunity to stand quietly in a forest and not have the pressing need to powerhike at a running pace through the bushes to a pre-defined location. That, and the forest inexplicably reminded me of those forests in Forks that have been so famously featured in the Twilight movies. I half expected to look up and find myself being hunted by Edward Cullen.
As I amused myself with the surroundings, the Co-pilot powered back proudly and dragged me off to a spot where he found some rather spectacular but sinister looking red and alabaster white specimens. We couldn’t identify them using our guide, but kept them anyway, so we could perform a more in depth identification later.
The experience we had at the first mushrooming ground formed the template for the rest of the day. We’d stop somewhere, I’d potter about slowly and contentedly with a dreamy look on my face and the Co-pilot would race off using a thorough military approach of sectioning off parts of the mushrooming area and systematically scouring and scanning for mushrooms.
By the end of the day we had collected a great variety of mushrooms, but sadly none that were saffron milkcaps.
We decided to try one more area before we called it quits and headed for home. We drove deep into the pine forests, passing curious wallabies standing sentinel on the way. As per usual, we went our separate ways and almost instantly I started finding good specimens including my first saffron milkcap! It wasn’t as pretty and immaculate as I’d hoped for but beggars can’t be choosers. I quickly followed that first find up with another specimen that was large, yellow with red flecks and oddly spongy in texture.
Proud of my mushroom hunting skills I went off in search of the Co-pilot to show-off and found him looking for me with a smug look on his face. Of course with such fertile mushrooming grounds, he’d found his own mushroom booty. I found him with his t-shirt hastily converted into a dirty basket laden full with enormous saffron milkcaps.
One of those specimens was impressively large and heavy.
Depositing our find, we went back in search of more and found plenty. A few more saffron milkcaps, and a few white mushroom varieties that I at first incorrectly identified as slippery jacks, the other common edible mushroom in pine forests, as they had a sticky film of mucus on the caps. On closer inspection though, these sticky imposters had gills underneath, not the typical tubes found on slippery jacks.
With this final raid, we boosted the value of our find dramtically and we grinned proudly at our dirt and pine-needle speckled booty.
We were finally satisfied with our haul and went home to first identify and then cook up our find.
Unfortunately, the identification process was quite disappointing as other than the distinctive saffron milkcaps which bled bright saffron milk and slowly turned blue with oxidisation, we couldn’t positively identify any of the other mushrooms. It wasn’t just because my mushrooming guide was designed for British forests (d’oh!), even the resources on the web couldn’t help us. There were too many specimens that fell into the “little brown toadstool” category as they had very few defining features that could let the amateur mushroom hunter identify them. In the end we had no choice but to obey the golden rule of mushrooming: “If you can’t identify it, don’t eat it”. And as there were poisonous specimens in my guide with ominous names like “death cap” and “funeral bell”, we didn’t need much convincing.
Our saffron milkcaps were so heavy with dirt, pine needles and other gunk, wiping them with a damp towel achieved nothing. We resorted to washing them thoroughly and slicing them into bitesize chunks.
We decided to make pasta, cooking the mushrooms in garlic and onions first and finishing with a parsley, milk, marsala and parmesan sauce.
Creamy fettucine with saffron milkcaps
- 500g saffron milkcaps, cleaned and chopped into bite-size chunks
- 225g of good fettucine pasta (half a packet)
- 300ml of milk (or half the amount in cream if desired)
- 1 large onion, roughly chopped
- 6 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
- 4 tblsp flat leaf parsley, roughly chopped
- 2 anchovies
- dash of marsala
- 1/2 cup of grated parmesan cheese
- freshly cracked pepper and salt, to taste
- Fry the onions and garlic in butter until translucent. Add anchovies and fry until melted
- Add in mushrooms and saute on low heat until wilted
- Add in milk, marsala, salt and pepper and cook on low-medium heat until half the liquid has reduced (about 20 minutes)
- Cook the pasta in a large pot with plenty of salted water whilst the mushrooms cook. Drain and set aside
- Add parsley and cheese to the mushrooms and mix
- Add in cooked pasta, toss to coat and serve immediately
The mushrooms were delicious, the creamy sauce complementing their meatyness well, but we found that the smaller and younger specimens were much nicer. Their smooth, silky, slippery texture gets drier and spongier with size and thus age. We paired it with a 2009 Piggs Peake Viognier, which cut through the creaminess and complemented the mushrooms nicely.
And because it was the result of almost a 10 hour day – a 5 hour round trip, and preparation time before and after the trip, it was a very, very satisfactory meal. Although, I must admit, the Co-pilot and I were very lucky that day. If it weren’t for the haul we found at the last spot we would’ve undoubtedly come home hungry, tired and empty handed.
But despite the long day and the very real risk of a day of fruitless mushrooming, you can probably gather from my post that I had a brilliant time and was keen as mustard to head off mushrooming again. In no time my story about my virgin mushrooming adventure garnered a fan base amongst my friends and I had a sizeable group of mushroomers keen to join in. When friends invited us up to stay in their holiday home in the Blue Mountains, we eagerly added in a mushrooming side trip.
Mushrooming in Oberon – take 2
Unlike our first mushroom foraging trip, this time the weather was pleasant and dry, with the sun creating warm dappled light through the forest. It was gorgeous, but I secretly missed the magical misty forest wonderland we experienced the first time. We were also worried about the mushroom potential as there hadn’t been rain for a while in the mountains and we didn’t expect to find much. But we needn’t have worried. The first place we stopped, a mere step from our car, the Co-pilot and I immediately noticed how many mushrooms were sprouting. On our first mushrooming attempt it was difficult to find any mushrooms, let alone the saffron milkcaps, and yet this time there were mushrooms everywhere. Sadly, the mushrooms in great abundance were fly agaric mushrooms – a striking but mildly poisonous red capped mushroom with white spots – one that I stereotypically visualise when I think of cartoon-ish mushrooms.
Not to be deterred we set off into the forest in search of saffron milkcaps and slippery jacks. Almost immediately, The Artist spots the first saffron milkcap partially hidden under pine needles and brambles and displays his find obligingly as we all snap photos.
Buoyed by the competitive hunt for saffron milkcaps, our enthusiastic hunting party of 6 set off, eyes glued to the forest floor for signs of hiding mushrooms. After a few hours of intense foraging involving scrambling through thorny blackberry brambles, walking through spider webs and flicking off leeches (all punctuated by alternating curses and screams ), we were abruptly herded out of the forest as there was a high speed car rally underway and somehow in our excitement and haste to go mushrooming we’d ignored all the signs and barricades.
But by that time we’d collected 2 baskets full of saffron milkcaps! So we were happy to call it quits and extricate ourselves from the path of oncoming rally cars.
Unfortunately, due to the lack of rainfall in the area in the preceding weeks, many of the mushrooms we collected were fairly dry and woody. So after a vigorous cull of all the poor specimens, we were left with only a third of what we’d collected.
Still, what remained was enough for mushrooms on toast for breakfast the next day. The Artist did the honours and cooked the mushrooms in a delicious buttery, herby concotion.
Herby saffron milkcaps on toasted sourdough
- 250g of saffron milkcaps, sliced in bite-size chunks
- handful of sage and thyme, roughly chopped
- handful of parsley, roughly chopped
- 3 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
- 100g of butter
- 1.5 cup of chicken stock
- juice of half a lemon
- salt and pepper to taste
- olive oil
- toasted slices of sourdough
- Fry the garlic, sage and thyme in butter over low heat until the butter starts to brown
- Add the mushrooms and cook until wilted
- Add chicken stock and cook on low heat for 15 minutes until mushrooms are soft and cooked through
- Add parsley and season with salt, pepper, a squeeze of lemon and dash of olive oil
- Serve immediately on toasted slices of sourdough
Although the mushrooms we collected were a tad dry and slightly lacking their usually distinctive nutty, rich flavour, the long and slow cooking with stock and flavoursome herbs more than made up for the faults and the result was a deliciously moreish breakfast devoured in minutes to the chorus of satisfied foragers.
So after 2 mushrooming trips have I satsifed my wild mushroom foraging obsession? Hah! Not even close. If anything, I’ve only added super-volatile bonfire fuel to my mushroom fire and feel a desperate need to get back out there this time armed with Australian mushroom field guides so I can better examine the mushroom specimens I find.
If you’re wondering where my secret mushrooming spot is, all I need to say is head to the pine forests in Oberon. There were plenty to be found everywhere I looked. And now is the time to do it as it’s peak mushroom season and we passed many fellow foragers looking for tasty mushroom morsels. Just wait for rain, then head to the visitor’s office in Oberon for a mushroom guide & you’re set!
Good luck and happy foraging!