Every autumn or so, we go picking wild mushrooms in various spots around Melbourne with my Dad and recently my sister. This seems to be a European thing to do, and gets a pretty bemused reaction from most of the Australians I know:
A. Mushrooms? Are they magic mushrooms, hahaha?
B. But how do you know which ones are good to pick?
To which I answer that A, while quite delicious they have no hallucinogenic qualities whatsoever and B, easy, you just stick with the mushrooms you know are safe to eat.
Mushroom picking can be a bit like fishing – long stretches of finding absolutely nothing interrupted with brief bursts of excitement when you finally spot something that is actually edible. It’s best to see it as an opportunity to get some fresh air and roam around the pretty countryside, with mushrooms as a bonus. Eucalyptus trees are no friends of mushrooms – you need a good pine forest, and some rainy weather beforehand increases your chances. On rare occasions, we’ve had outings where the ground was virtually littered with mushrooms, to the point where we could get snooty and select only the prettiest ones. But even when the pickings are slim, it’s best to stay away from the old, overgrown mushrooms, as they won’t taste great. Also, mushrooms tend to cluster, so if you find one it’s worth looking around closely as its friends and family might be hiding nearby.
The Russian name for these translates literally as “butter mushrooms”. The names refer to their sticky, slippery brown caps, which are usually peeled off before cooking. There’s a kind of inedible fungi that looks rather similar, but you can tell slippery jacks by the yellow colour of their spongy underside. The brown caps often make them hard to spot on the ground, but they’re definitely worth the effort. These mushrooms are divine when marinated, and they’re pretty good fried too.
Saffron Milk Cap (or Red Pine Mushrooms)
These mushrooms are so distinct they’re impossible to confuse with any others. The Russian name translates as “ginger”, for obvious reasons. The older mushrooms grow into a sort of a wine glass shape, but the smaller ones are just the cutest little round things. They have a tougher texture and some people find them a tad bitter to taste – I find them delicious personally.
Special mention goes to these guys, who are surely the supermodels of the mushroom kingdom. At least in looks, as they’re unfortunately poisonous and will stuff you up good. But hey at least they’re out and loud about it, without the weaselly tricks of trying to imitate edible mushrooms. And they make for a stunning addition to the autumn landscape.
These mushrooms are my personal favourites which, sadly, do not grow in Australia. Back when we lived in Siberia, we went on a long day trip on a bus to pick them; I never liked the city we lived in but the Siberian nature and outings like these were its one saving grace. Nameko (or opyata in Russian) grow in clusters and our dream jackpot was always to find a tree stump covered with these babies. I can still remember the smell of the drying mushrooms as they hung in rows around our kitchen.