Lets Talk About Mushrooms
Scientists believe that land on earth was once dominated by vast forests of mushrooms, each towering at a height of 8 meters, while the forbears of modern plant life struggled for life in their shadow. 400 million years later, it’s the diverse, diminutive descendants of these ancient fungi that populate forest floors all over the world, popping up in the shade of all manner of trees and plants. Mushrooms are noted for their remarkable ability to explode rapidly out of nutrient-rich soil, even appearing overnight at times. The spores from which mushrooms grow will lie, inert in the ground, waiting for the burst of rain and moisture that will allow them to grow.
Even as relative newcomers to the ecological scene, humans have quickly figured out that many mushrooms make for great eating. In European antiquity, the Romans found one orange fungus to be particularly delectable, enjoying it greatly enough to warrant depiction in some of their famous frescoes. Aptly declared “delicious” by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in the 18th century, the scarce saffron milk cap can now be found in abundance throughout the pine forests of southeast Australia.
The spores of these mushrooms stowed away in amongst the pine seedlings brought over from Europe, and are not endemic to Australia. Bright orange with delicate gills on the underside, the saffron milk caps create rare pockets of colour, dotting dark forest floors otherwise blanketed by pine needles. Their lives are fleeting, and they can only be found growing between late February and early May. The drizzling rains of autumn and early winter provide the cold snaps and moisture required for the mushrooms’ sudden growth. So, if you’re interested in foraging these delicious fungi, you’ll need to lie in wait for the wet weather of autumn just as they do.
When harvesting, it can be tempting to snap up the larger, older milk caps which are broad and easy to spot. However, it’s the younger, smaller mushrooms that have the better taste. Also, be sure to look for greenish-brown blemishes; one or two little ones are fine, but avoid those which appear to be suffering from significant rot or decomposition. As always when picking fungi, carefully research the poisonous varieties typically found in your region and avoid them. When in doubt, go without.
As for cooking, saffron milk caps can be used in many of the same ways other mushrooms can, albeit with a taste unparalleled by their more garden-variety counterparts. They’re prized by restaurants the world over and are something of a national fare in Spain. They are naturally crisp and crunchy, so they’re great to simply fry with a bit of batter. Dry them out and use them to make broth, or sauté them when fresh alongside meat and veg. Overall, these naturally foraged mushrooms will make for a fantastic addition to any autumn pantry.
Story by Anthony Carrubba, Mushrooms supplied by Australian Wild Herbs and Mushrooms.