For most people when a stranger makes contact and invites you to Belanglo State Forest, it sets off alarm bells at orifice-damaging decibels.
And… you might consider my decision to accept the invitation a sure fire bet to win me a Darwin award.
For those unfamiliar with the infamous Belanglo State Forest, it is a forest in NSW where the bodies of seven backpackers were found during the 1990s and eventually connected to one serial killer, Ivan Milat. The case became known as the Backpacker Murders, the stories so chillingly gruesome that unfortunately, the murders have perhaps forever tainted the name of the forest. A Google search for the forest will attest to that with barely any non case-related links being returned.
Fellow forager and mushroom enthusiast Lenka, read my Oberon mushroom foraging post and contacted me with information about and an invitation to forage for saffron milk caps in Belanglo. Having already foraged for saffron milk caps (more commonly known as “pine mushrooms” or “red pine mushrooms”) on several occasions now at Oberon, this alone wasn’t a great lure. But, size does matter and her mention of a colossal 150kg mushroom haul thoroughly piqued my interest. But still, I was reserved and decided to do some research on the foraging potential at Belanglo. And that’s when I discovered a pond in a popular camp site within the forest, and apparently it was crawling with yabbies. Yabbies – the mere mention of them overcame my rational desires for self preservation. Knowing the Co-pilot had a weakness for yabbies guaranteed his inclusion on this creepy foraging expedition, so I turned my attentions on my reliable best friend, L-bean.
There was much hysteria and an understandable amount of concern as we are now well conditioned to be suspicious of invitations to Belanglo, even if they come from your closest friends. But, the hysteria gave way eventually with a resigned “I must love you to agree to this madness.” Duly ignoring her begrudging tone, I took that to mean “Hooray! Count me in!”
After much correspondence with Lenka, and countless tempting messages of mushroom sightings, the time seemed ripe to head down to Belanglo.
We prepped for the day trip (no, even I am not mad/brave enough to camp overnight in Belanglo) by half-jokingly telling our friends, family and colleagues about our intended plan to head to Belanglo, just in case we were all mysteriously absent from work the following week. Time and time again, our announcements were met with raised eyebrows and horrified expressions that were more befitting an announcement that I was going to throw myself into a pit of angry fire ants – for fun. Then, came the predictable musing about what the mushrooms and yabbies were feeding on. Even the tackle shop owner couldn’t resist a jibe and a semi-hysterical “good luck” when I left his store with my yabby trap.
As we were committed to the foraging expedition, we duly ignored all the gut senses telling us not to go and the Co-pilot and I met with L-bean and Spamtaro at the unearthly hour of 7am on a Sunday morning for the 2 hour drive down to Belanglo. I wish we’d taken a photo of the boot of the Co-pilot’s 4WD. Despite all the negative nervous buildup, that boot was the absolute definition of optimism! We had baskets, boxes, tools and identification books for the mushrooms; smelly bait, a trap, 2 large fishing nets, untold numbers of hand reels and an enormous 50L freezer esky to hold all the yabbies we were clearly ‘guaranteed’ to catch.
We arrived at Berrima Markets at 9am just in time to find Lenka and her mother finishing their market stall setup. Before us were a plethora of healthy succulents – a passion of Lenka’s mother, Zdenka. And then there were the rows of petite jars from Lenka’s label, Bohemian Delights, holding exotic jams, chutneys and condiments from berry jams and corn relishes to more interesting additions like feijoa jam, watermelon jam and pickled wild mushrooms.
Our eyes were drawn to a tray of fresh young saffron milkcaps displayed on a bed on pine needles and we pointed and hopped about excitedly – this was hard evidence that the mushrooms were growing! Lenka assures us that the mushrooms started growing the week prior and we should be successful on the forage. She and her family are of Czech descent and arrived in Australia when Lenka was only 15. Keen to uphold their long-held Czech traditions of foraging, they scoured the forests for wild mushrooms and fruit and Lenka remembers being woken up by her parents at dawn and along with her sister were dragged off to forests to pick the first mushrooms. Far from finding them taxing experiences she recalls relishing them, and found picking through the quiet beautiful forests peaceful and calming.
She adds that now many more Eastern European communities have turned up to forage in the forests and often she’ll find the fertile foraging spots crawling with hungry foragers. Sadly though, she finds the newcomers are a noisy lot, yelling to each other and disturbing the precious tranquility of the forest and the experience.
Importantly, not only has Lenka embraced the family foraging expeditions but now is often the driving force behind them, thinking nothing of long 3-4 hour drives to remote forest patches for the different mushrooms that come into season at certain times of year, or fat juicy blackberries the size of 20c pieces, plump juicy wild plums perfect for jams – even the feijoas were foraged. Over many years, their family has mentally catalogued the seasonal calendars and conditions required for wild foraging. They are now adept enough to read weather conditions and adjust their seasonal calendars to compensate. As she rattles off her foraging conquests, I am in awe – her dedication and passion for foraging puts mine to shame!
When Lenka’s father, Slavoj, arrives and we set off. Foragers are notoriously protective of their foraging spots so we are very surprised that Lenka is more than happy to share her mushrooming spots with us. We pass an ominous warning at the entrance of Belanglo State Forest that simply reads “PLEASE BE CAREFUL“, a simple chilling message that settled heavily on our minds as we continued to drive deep into the forest.
Down the winding roads we drove squirreling ever further down the rabbit hole, splashing through puddles of muddy brown water and whizzing past quaint farmhouse residences, that we speculated, must have dropped in real estate value over the last decade.
Finally we arrive at the spot and pile out of the cars. We find ourselves in a clearing surrounded by towering majestic pines.
Within a millisecond, Lenka pointed out the first saffron milkcap and then another and we crowd around them excitedly. Slavoj unpacked waiting baskets and tools from his boot – and I noted – anyone who travels with multiple baskets ready for an opportune moment of foraging is serious about the craft!
We were there primarily to collect the saffron milkcaps or pine mushrooms – a great candidate for amateur foragers as this mushroom’s characteristics of carrot colour, funnel shape, distinctive feature of bleeding orange milk and turning green when bruised make it readily identifiable, and the absence of poisonous lookalike mushrooms is handy peace of mind.
I’ve had some questions on previous blog posts about mushroom collecting ethics and I should take the opportunity to clear some mushrooming myths. Collecting the entire mushroom, base and all, is a MUST for amateur foragers – especially if you are anything but 200% sure of the identity of the mushroom as there are often very important identifying features in the base. For instance, lots of deadly Amanita species can only be readily identified by the existence of a volva sac at the base of the mushroom – foolhardy foragers who cut their mushrooms at the base may be putting their lives, and the lives of others, at risk. The arguments for cutting mushrooms off at the base include the notion that this will aid mushroom reproduction. This is a false belief as the spores or seeds that are responsible for reproduction are usually located in the cap for gilled and most pored mushrooms. By only taking young mushrooms (whole: stem, base and all) and leaving old, spore producing mushrooms untouched and free to disperse their spores is a better way of ensuring mushroom dispersal.
For simplicity’s sake: take this analogy – the mushroom is the fruit of a large mycelial network – an “underground tree of mushrooms” if you like. The seeds of the mushroom fruit are the spores in the cap. If you were to pick fruit off the tree, would leaving part of the fruit on the tree help reproduction and dispersal of the fruit? No.
Having said that, there is 1 good reason one should cut the base off a mushroom – and that is so the dirt and debris doesn’t sully your other clean mushrooms. I have discovered that just 1 dirt speckled mushroom bouncing around in your basket is enough to effectively spread dirt. The dirt seems to invariably get everywhere and deep into the gills where it stubbornly refuses to dislodge from. So this time, because we were 200% sure we were picking red pine mushrooms or saffron milkcaps, we picked the mushrooms, then duly cut the bases off before placing them in the basket.
So, baskets and knives in hand, L-bean, Spamtaro and I followed Lenka and Slavoj around listening to their wise tips on how to spot a young saffron milkcap and how to handle it.
The stems are dry and woody so we were instructed to cut the stem off close to the cap. We learned that smaller specimens tend to also be younger and fresher but that wasn’t always true. Sure signs of a good young mushroom include checking that the cap still has an inrolled margin or curled cap with a white rim around the cap edge; and a good amount of bleeding when the stem was cut off.
Eventually, the Co-pilot returned from his lone forage. When we all listened to the experts about how to pick the best saffron milkcaps, he’d clearly been unable to resist the inner competitive urge to hunt, honed from decades of family Easter Egg Hunts and had long powered off into the forest. He now proudly showed us a basket full of large and dirty mushrooms, the bases still intact and the dirt contaminating every clean surface of the mushrooms. What an amateur! Thankfully, Lenka patiently helped him sort through his find.
After a mere 30 minutes, we’d each collected a satisfying mound of mushrooms. Lenka and Slavoj had enough mushrooms for their needs and called it quits and we’d only covered a tiny fraction of the fertile mushrooming ground.
On cue, we hear the cars and visitors before we see them round the bend into the clearing. A convoy of three cars roared into view, jovial folk music blaring from the open windows, and a small child was even standing up in the front passenger seat of first car, her head barely above the sunroof as though she was the all-important navigator in the ship’s crow’s nest. Upon seeing us, then spotting our laden baskets, they threw their hands up in frustration and roared on to the next clearing, their music growing gradually distant, but always audible. The magic was broken and it was time for us to visit the next patch.
Though it was still months away from slippery jack season, Lenka and her father were insistent on showing us where their favoured slippery jack spot was, in case we wanted to return for foraging without them. Such a generous gift didn’t go unnoticed – this is the forager equivalent of welcoming a stranger whole-heartedly into your home! Particularly when we note that foraging for and supplying wild mushrooms to major Sydney produce markets is big business for Lenka.
Back into the car we bundled and a few more rabbit turns later, we found ourselves at another clearing. This one was significantly different to the first, the ground was drier, the pine trees and foliage younger and sparsely set. As predicted, it had been too early for slippery jacks to emerge, and apart from a small rogue button slippery jack, we found nothing. No mushrooms of any sort. It just illustrated how important Lenka’s guidance on the saffron milkcap spot had been – if we’d stumbled on a spot like the slippery jack spot first, we would have undoubtedly assumed that it was either too dry, too early, or the conditions too poor for mushrooms. The assumption would definitely not have been that we just needed to search different parts of the forest.
We turned to leave and that’s when we spotted …the bones.
A long femur like bone lay a few paces before us and stopped us dead in our tracks. I forgot how to think, and quite frankly, adopted the defence strategy of the Costa Rican agouti, a dim animal that first flounders then freezes on the spot. Eventually, our legs propelled us forward and our tongues unfroze and we moved in to examine the bones. Beyond the long femur were some spinal bones – all white, bone dry and picked clean. Then we spotted what looked like a pelvis, and it appeared far too narrow to be human. We deduced it might have been a small kangaroo or joey eaten by one of the foxes endemic in the area. Not wholly convinced, but our consciences satisfied enough with the answer, we left the area at a brisk trot.
We bid goodbye to Lenka and Slavoj who had to hurry back to the markets to relieve Lenka’s mother manning the stall on her own and our little crew of foragers continued on to try our luck catching yabbies instead.
The yabby is a 10-legged crustacean (decapod) under the Cherax genus, apparently a derivation of the Greek word “Charax“, which means “pointed stake” or “thing that scratches” (personally, I could’ve come up with a more graphic application for a stake then “a thing that scratches”). The most common yabby farmed in aquaculture and found in the wild on the Australian eastern seaboard is the fearsomely named Cherax Destructor, so named because this yabby has an annoying habit of burrowing sideways through soft irrigation banks and leaching the water out of ponds and dams. The yabby tends to breed in the spring and summer, very little during winter and during times of drought or stress burrow deep into the ground below the water table. Specifically, they grow best at temperatures exceeding 15 degrees C so whether or not yabbies are in season and plentiful depends on the location and temperature. For us, we deemed it perfect yabby harvesting season, as they’ve had a long hot summer to fatten up.
To counteract my inexperience in the field of yabby fishing, I researched the process extensively from ideal baits to trapping methods. Surprisingly, though it may not be intuitive, a fishing license is required for collecting yabbies in some states, including NSW, and a 3 day license will set you back a mere $6. The recommended trap was a regulation compliant operahouse style yabby trap, which will usually cost about $10 and are available from many tackle shops. Bait is always a critical element in fishing success and I scoured the fishing forums for a definitive bait, the consensus on which seemed that smelly off meat worked best as yabbies are scavengers (best not to think about what those yabbies are growing fat on), and one avid angler even claimed an Aboriginal secret yabby bait was road-kill bird singed in a fire. Not quite dedicated enough to the task to scrape roadkill off the local freeway, I settled for Chinese roast duck and chunks of raw sausage left out in the sun to ripen for a day.
We arrived at Dalys Clearing, a popular campsite in the forest with a shallow pond of murky brown water and fringed by pine trees. Wasting no time, we set up our trap, stuffing great morsels of smelly bait into the bait holder and placing the trap near the shoreline close to debris, where yabbies like to hide. And then we stared at the pond intently for some time, half hoping to see the water churn and boil with yabby activity as they scrambled to cram themselves into our waiting trap.
To wile away the time, we set up some hand reels and tied pieces of the bait to the line and tossed those in as well. And that’s when we spotted a yabby, barely visible and hiding in the shadow of a fallen branch. I whooped in excitement, calling the others over and then remembering the hunt was at stake starting shushing everyone and myself, tip toeing around in case excessive noise would alert the creatures and scare them from our trap. With yabbies sighted, our prospects just increased 10-fold!
We decided the best strategy was to leave the trap undisturbed whilst we broke for lunch but as it was already late in the day and we had no intentions of being caught in the forest after dark, in the end we only left the trap in for little over an hour.
The ever logical Co-pilot reasoned that we needed about 15 yabbies each or 60 in total to make for a satisfying meal worth our effort and though the best strategy would have been to set the trap before mushroom foraging, that hadn’t quite worked as planned and we were behind schedule. As daylight was rapidly fading, he calculated that we could afford at most another hour, and to catch 60 yabbies in 120 minutes, they’d really need to be fighting their way into our trap at a sprinting rate of 1 yabby every 2 minutes! In the face of his annoying infallible logic, there was much doubt that we’d catch enough yabbies to satisfy the four of us, so we hauled the trap in.
Six! Not a massive haul by any stretch but they were my first foraged yabbies, so still a success in my books.
Like little white dogs, they were small but aggressive and raised their pincers threateningly at us. After the obligatory photo shoot, we returned the yabbies to the pond and watched them shoot away with a quick propulsion of their tails. We threw the remainder of our smelly bait in to aid in the fattening process so that the next yabby forager there might have more luck. Next time, we’ll start the hunt earlier and leave our trap for longer. For now, plans for yabby recipes will have to be shelved.
So we failed on the yabby hunting front, but when faced with a more saffron milkcaps than we knew what to do with, we decided to use some of the youngest, freshest specimens for dinner that night and reserved the rest for dehydrating.
Despite their impressive looks, pine mushrooms actually have a very subtle flavour and requires strong flavours to lift and dress them up. Their flavour and texture lends well to long stews as they can soak up with flavours of stewing liquid. I decided to create a Japanese style warm mushroom salad with strong citrusy yuzu, savoury soy and fragrant sesame flavours to bring the pine mushrooms to life.
Warm Pine Mushroom Salad with Yuzu and Sesame Dressing
- 350g of pine mushrooms (also known as red pine mushrooms or saffron milkcaps)
- 4 tbsp Japanese yuzu dressing (a poor substitute if not available might be dashi broth, sugar and lemon zest)
- 3 tbsp rice wine vinegar
- 2 tbsp salt reduced soy sauce
- 1tbsp mirin
- 1/2 tsp sesame oil
- white pepper to taste
- vegetable oil
- sesame seeds to garnish
- salad leaves (optional)
- Brush mushrooms clean. Pine mushrooms are not very absorbent and can be washed lightly if necessary.
- Slice off stem as close to cap as possible and discard as this is dry and woody. Slice cap into 2cm thick slices. Mushrooms that bleed orange milk profusely are fresh, discard any mushrooms or pieces that don’t bleed as they’ll tend to be dry and woody.
- Heat vegetable oil in a wok or frying pan on medium heat and saute mushrooms until sweated.
- Transfer to a bowl, add dressing and garnish with sesame seeds.
We found the Japanese flavours worked surprisingly well with the pine mushrooms. Oh, and in case you read my first pine mushroom post and were wondering – yes, I confirmed that pine mushrooms definitely cause red urine. Although the reaction seems to vary between individuals.
We had so many mushrooms still remaining that we couldn’t possibly eat them all so we decided to dehydrate everything else.
Having not ever dehydrated mushrooms before, I wasn’t sure of what to expect or how long it would take. Lenka had explained that the process of dehydration would render the bright orange mushrooms a dark brown-black colour, but on rehydration the orange colour would return and I knew they needed to be potato-chip crispy before they could be considered done. It was a few hours into the drying when we noticed the smell. What started as a ripe, smelly pungent mushroom smell quickly morphed into an even stronger and more recognisable scent. Dried pine mushrooms inexplicably smelt like wet dog.
Every time I turned on the dehydrator, plumes of wet dog smells would bloom in our apartment filling every crevice and making us grimace. It invariably made the Co-pilot wail “dawg!” as he pleaded with me to stop the dehydration process, trying in vain to convince me that the pieces were dry enough.
Eventually after 2 days of being assaulted with offensive wet dog smell, the drying process was finally done and I now have 5 serves of dehydrated pine mushrooms ready to go at a moments notice.
With thanks to Lenka and her family for generously taking the time to show us her foraging spots and the secrets of the pine mushroom. The pine mushrooms are currently in season from now (March) and depending on weather conditions may extend till June or beyond. Slippery Jacks tend to start their season during the colder months of late May onwards.
View Belanglo State Forest in a larger map