If there’s one thing I look forward to at this time of year it’s not the chocolate, succulent roast lamb, or even breaking out my winter doona. No, for the past few years my new tradition at Easter has been mushroom hunting. And this year, it’s a doozie.
It’s a tradition shared by anyone who’s grown up in Central and Eastern Europe, where the last gasp of summer and the onset of autumn rain calls time. With the rise of supermarkets and convenience foods many of us have become disconnected with the way we gather our food that the prospect of going out to find – and pick – wild food is seen first through the lens of danger before delight.
But wild foods can also be the most delicious, as anyone who fishes, hunts or forages will tell you. There’s a primal delight to scouring a forest floor and seeing mushrooms literally emerge like in a video game, and once you pick your first it’s hard to stop.
First, the best introduction to it is to join someone who knows what they’re doing since there really is danger out there. Diego Bonetto, a wild food expert who first learnt about gathering food from the landscape from his parents in northern Italy holds mushroom picking classes several times over autumn, and they quickly sell out. Meeting at dawn in Sydney’s inner city, you head out with baskets and hopes in hand and meet other enthusiasts, keen on making a new tradition, too.
There are two species you can safely pick in Australia, both introduced through the roots of pine trees which are themselves imports from Europe. Cooler nights and plenty of rain is all it takes to set them off, and once you learn which ones are good to pick and which are poisonous, it’s a pretty easy task to identify and collect them.
There’s something quite magical about a pine forest in the autumn anyway – the prickly needles make them an unwelcome environment for soft-footed kangaroos, snakes and other native wildlife, though you’ll find plenty of fox burrows and perhaps the odd wombat making their home amongst the pine trees. More than anything, the silence of a pine forest is what first strikes you when you enter one – until you see your first mushroom, then all you can hear are others collecting them.
I ducked out for my first pick a couple of weeks ago, after a week of rain subsided and night temperatures dipped below 15 degrees. The fungi live in a symbiotic relationship with the pine trees, their vast networks entangled with their roots, feeding them nutrients from the soil and taking sugars the pine trees produce through photosynthesis. When the rains come, they flower in the form of mushrooms, and fruit through the spawn released under their gills. Collecting them in baskets allows the spores to fall out onto the ground, encouraging more mushrooms to develop. By the time our baskets and bags are full, it’s time to test them out and cook a few over a fire, just with some butter, garlic and parsley. They’re just as tasty as avocado on toast and much cheaper!
What I love most is watching others do exactly the same thing. In a little clearing within the Belanglo State Forest, near Bowral, you’ll find large families sharing and eating the mushrooms they’ve just gathered, talking to each other in their native tongue and reliving their childhoods, passing on this tradition to their children.
If traditions are what Easter is all about, sometimes the best are the new traditions you can make your own.