From the Forest Floor: A Field Guide to Mushroom Picking
The very best traditions are the ones involving being outdoors. And food. There’s nothing like being out in the fresh air all day only to finish up with a tasty reward for your efforts. My favourite tradition is mushroom picking, specifically the red pine mushroom (also called saffron milkcap), a family pastime my European parents continued in their newly adopted home. There’s something truly miraculous about such a healthy and delicious treat springing from the leaf litter and decaying pine needles on the forest floor.
Every year growing up, as soon as the weather got cooler and the rain more frequent, my family would pack up the car and head west to a pine forest near Oberon. Bleary eyed and bundled up, the journey would start so early in the morning it was still dark. The excitement would hit as soon as we were on the road, blankets piled up on us kids in the back, hot coffee steaming from my parent’s mugs in the front.
This yearly pilgrimage was for one thing: mushrooms. Oh yes. Meaty, chewy, fresh-from-the-forest-floor “Rydze” or red pine mushrooms – only a person who has tasted this distinctly flavoured fungi will understand the crazed passion used to describe its flavour.
My parents are originally from Poland, where mushroom picking is a thing. A country steeped in thousand-year-old traditions, foraging in the forest for berries, herbs and fungi is something many recall as their happiest memories growing up. As the seasons changed, varieties that had been lying dormant for the year were suddenly in abundance; blackberries in the summer, mushrooms in autumn.
It’s with that same anticipation my sister and I would look forward to our annual excursions to the forest – A novelty compared to our usual family outings of either bush walking or going to the beach.
Upon our arrival, Dad would scope out a good spot for us to start. Buckets and knives in hand, we would commence the foraging, hopefully not running into anyone else on the way. If an area had already been cleared out, we would move on, deeper into the trees, until someone would spot a tell tale orange cap poking from the carpet of pine needles.
Occasionally we would hear voices off in the distance, many of them Polish or other Eastern European dialects. A husband would tiredly hurry on his wife; “Come on, Irena, we have enough, let’s go home, I’m hungry”!
The best time to look for red pines is when the weather it still somewhat mild, but the late summer to early autumn rains have begun.
Poking out of the ground they resemble little tree stumps, with a dull orange/brown cap, and bright orange ribs underneath. They can grow up to around 15cm in diameter and are most often found nestled amongst the pine needles of the forest floor.
Red Pines can be cooked and prepared in many ways. The best method though is the most simple. After lightly scrubbing the mushrooms of any dirt or pine needles and patting them dry, slice thickly and season liberally with salt.
Fry these in small batches in some good-quality butter, for around 5-7mins. Serve immediately and eat slowly to savour the once-a-year goodness that these sweet, meaty morsels provide.
If you get a particularly good haul that you won’t get through in a day or two, slice any remaining mushrooms thinly and string them up. Leave them hanging until completely dry and store in airtight containers. Another simpler way to dry them is to slice thinly and lay flat on baking sheets until dry, but it’s nice having garlands of wild mushrooms strung around the kitchen for a few days. These can be used later on for fillings in dumplings or in pasta sauces and stews.
For centuries, mushrooms have been valued throughout many cultures for both their nutritional and medicinal properties. Mushrooms contain high amounts of minerals and trace elements, higher than grains and plants. They are abundant in iron, zinc and potassium. Wild mushrooms are particularly good at extracting nutrients from the rich forest soil. They are recommended for promoting longevity, boosting immunity and some studies claim they even fight cancer.
If you do decide to venture off into the pines, it’s best to go with someone who knows exactly what to look for. There are many different varieties of mushrooms out there, with some containing fatal amounts of poison. And as always when wild foraging, take only what you need.
If you’re not quite as adventurous, many farmers markets have red pines and other varieties of wild mushrooms for sale during the season.