Autumn is mushroom season. Cooler temperatures and rain are indications that the season has begun. Easter full moon is usually the apex of the season. This year's season (2015) was late and started at the winter full moon. The two edible species, Saffron Milk Caps (Lactarius deliciosus) and Slippery Jacks (Suillus lutius) grow only in pine forests. These two species are fool proof for identification and edibility. It's hard to mistake them. You will pay $40/kg for these at the markets.
Mushrooms are neither plants nor animals. They are the growing body of an organism that lives underground. They have a relationship with the trees and plants that they grow on or near by. Some are parasites that live off other plants. The mushrooms extend the root system of pine trees, they eat the carbohydrates from the roots that they grow near. These organisms do not produce chlorophyll so they do not produce their own carbohydrates, which is why they need to live off other plants. The largest species of fungus is in Oregon, and spans hundreds of acres underground. One organism grows in a critical mass which is the metabolic centre of the organism. It spreads the energy of the organism all along the host tree's root system.
You will see many species in the pine forest. Some very brightly coloured like the bright red and white Amanita muscaria. These bright red ones with spots are famous from folk law/fairy tales. They will not kill you upon touching. Some communities do eat them, they boil then discard the water several times to prepare them. Inedible mushrooms can have hallucinogenic effects if eaten raw. Death is also possible. There are only two edible species that are typically collected in the State Forest, full of radiata pines, which produce all of our cheap pine furniture and paper. These mushrooms were deliberately introduced to help the growth of these trees. Without the mushrooms the pine trees do not proliferate as well. The pine becomes more economically viable once mushrooms are introduced. Polish families are the traditional mushrooming pioneers out here. Russians, Italians Greeks and Spanish also forage for wild mushrooms.
Always mushroom with someone who is experienced. Empower yourself with confidence this way. It can be risky relying on internet based identification when mushrooming. Smells, sounds and surroundings are also important to experience. Not just reading. Once upon a time we had uncles and aunties to teach us. Today we live in a society with a generation gap. Uncles and aunties are a bit busy with their superannuation. So it can be difficult to learn your knowledge and skills unless you have access to experienced people.
SMC start as a button in the ground. They pop out then turn into a cup that 'overspills'. The gills are orange, the top is also orange with concentric circles. A big stem, which eventually becomes hollow and cracks. Edibility can be detained by looking. A firm, solid texture means it's good eating. They produce a saffron milk that stains skin orange, helve the name Lactarius, meaning milk.
For better ID of an unknown mushroom you can take a spore print of it by placing it gills down on paper, covered with another sheet of paper overnight, the spores will leave a 'print' on the paper visible to the naked eye. SMC will leave a beautiful orange spore print.
To find them, we must become accustomed to our "mushroom eyes". You will get used to spotting the colour and shape. They grow under the pine leaf litter. Cut it with your knife, trying to disturb the surrounding ground as little as possible. Clean the top on the spot, place it in your basket, gills down, so the spores can continue to drop as you walk around. Once they open they have already spored. Ayurvedic tradition says that eating mushrooms is the most ethically sensitive/sustainable way to eat plants because you are still allowing them to procreate.
Wild pine mushroom risotto night is one to remember! Activated aborio rice slowly absorbed, ladle by ladle, in a lovely fresh batch of mineral-rich, chicken broth, butter, your foraged forest mushrooms, free range chicken thigh, herbs from the garden, pink salt, white pepper, raw parmigiano reggio on top... DAYUM, it is tasty!
1 litre homemade chicken stock
Free range chicken thigh, diced
grass-fed butter, eg Westgold
1 brown onion, finely chopped
1 1/2 cups arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
3 garlic cloves, finely sliced
5 large handfuls of wild pine muchrooms, sliced
2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 cup finely grated raw parmigiano reggio
Heat 1 tablespoon of butter in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Cook the onion and chicken thigh, stirring, for 5 mins or until tender. Remove chicken. Stir in the rice until well coated. Add 1 ladleful of stock mixture and gently stir until stock is absorbed. Repeat with the remaining stock mixture until the rice is tender with just a slight bite.
Meanwhile, heat the remaining butter in a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Cook the garlic, stirring, for 3-4 mins or until golden and crisp. Use a slotted spoon to transfer to a plate. Increase heat to high. Cook the mushrooms in the butter, in batches, stirring, for 5 mins or until golden and tender. Transfer to rice pan. Season and toss to combine.
Stir the cheese into the risotto. Set aside, covered, for 2 mins to melt. Divide among plates and top with parsley. Season with pepper.
Wild pine mushrooms are also a delicious addition to a wintery shepherds pie.