George Biron has been a chef in some landmark restaurants that he has owned or worked for, His Sunnybrae Farm near Birregurra was always a pleasure to visit as the farm style rooms and the freshly picked home grown food formed the basis of a wonderful culinary experience.
My introduction to the cooking of wild fungi began in the early eighties in London where ceps, chanterelles, morels and other wild fungi were quite commonplace on restaurant menus. A decade later when we opened our restaurant Sunnybrae near Birregurra I was privileged to employ a young chef Craig Creasy who had been introduced by another older French chef to wild edible fungi growing in Australian that are quite common in the forests in and around the Otway ranges in Victoria. So began a passion for foraging for wild edible fungi.
The notion that we are still a largely a white Anglo-Australian fungi phobic community has changed remarkably in these three decades. I believe we are now, due to the enormous interest in food and cooking, a largely neophillic society actively seeking out the new and exotic food experiences. An extreme manifestation of this lust for the new in relation to edible fungi has even seen Cordyceps used on Masterchef! [season 7 episode 52] with virtually no background or explanation. FFS? I wonder if Coles was inundated for Cordyceps after that episode?
As we were also a cooking school I began to host fungi foraging excursions and fungi cooking classes often with expert guides. I did this as much to expand my own knowledge as for the benefit of the others on the hunt. I bought as many books on the subject that I could find and began a study that still fascinates me now. These trips ended with a meal made with our finds on the day.
Many farmers’ markets and seasonal restaurant menus abound in the sale and use of wild fungi but in Victoria it is mainly two common varieties Saffron Milk Caps, Slippery Jacks and their variants. In South Australia large flushes of Boletus edulis in recent years have also entered the trading mix and are being seen at Victorian and other interstate markets. I have also seen Wood Blewits, Horse mushrooms, morels and a few other varieties offered for sale in markets and used in restaurants.
In the forest I often encounter people from European and Asian backgrounds and also young and older Australian foragers picking all sorts of other fungi that I would not consider edible that they are familiar with and were comfortable with and using in their cooking. And I don’t mean the trippers although they are all also there. While some of these hunter gatherers have solid experience I have also seen baskets full of mixed fungi picked and disturbed by amateurs just because they look “cool”
The more I learned about wild fungi, its relationship to the environment and the dangers of indiscriminate foraging the more careful I became. There seemed to be an endless public appetite to learn more about fungi and especially edible fungi but there were very few if any in depth courses run by experts that were available. Eventually I gave up hosting forays even though they became more and more popular. The last forays that I conducted had the most experienced guides I could find to minimise the risks. I eventually realised even though we were very clear in our warnings someone who had been on one of our forays could inadvertently make a mistake and suffer the consequences. I also began to fear that an inexperienced forager-chef could after one of our classes mistakenly use a dangerous mushroom on a restaurant menu with catastrophic results. I realised that a short half day foray and cooking class was just not enough.
The other day while having lunch at my local café in Kyneton my partner alerted me to an interesting wild fungi exchange going on at the back of the café. I wandered out the back and discretely inquired as to what the fungi being discussed was? The forager was trying to sell truffle like fungi to the cook. It looked like a type of Melanogaster? I did not know what it was. On further inspection the smooth exterior rang warning bells but to an untrained eye the cross-section could easily have been mistaken for a black truffle which it was very clearly not. I gave my two bobs worth and suggested they do a bit more investigating before thinking about cooking with it.
The interest in all wild foods is undeniably increasing as is the interest in sustainable living and I believe we have an opportunity to develop a series of courses run by academically trained and professionally experienced people to promote an ecologically sound guide to fungi foraging in Victoria.
The bulk of wild fungi sold into food service comes from private foragers selling directly to restaurants or to larger aggregating provedores. Farmers’ markets also sell a lot of wild fungi that is often in less than optimum condition. I believe the managers of these organisations would embrace courses of this nature for themselves and their buyers.
Commercial foragers who I have spoken with, who also have a professional attitude to this activity, are very keen to be able to gain more experience in this area to safeguard their clients and their livelihoods. I have also spoken to Matteo Pingnatelli the National President of the Restaurant and Caterers Association who is also keen to see such courses being made available to his members.
On the other hand, as a lot of this activity is taking place in the cash economy and there will be resistance from that quarter but I believe if such courses were available, provedores, executive chefs and Farmers’ market managers would only be too happy to buy from dealers who have been through such a course. I am not suggesting compulsory accreditation but commercial foragers who have been through these courses would become the preferred provider leading to a growth of knowledge and would develop a deeper respect for the environment where they grow. Interest in these courses will also come from many private individuals who have a strong interest in cooking, ecology and conservation. Rather than create a “gold rush” like culture that has developed in some parts of Europe and the United States Europe an ordered well conducted series of fungi education courses would be able to explain the ecology and special relationships that fungi have with the environment and confront the limited knowledge that we have about the edibility of native fungi. Out of such courses and the interaction created with people currently consuming “not documented as edible” fungi can only add to the growing wealth of knowledge that academic researchers are undertaking.
The confirmation of the edibility of wild fungi is a very complicated area of study but the provision of solid well researched and delivered courses to understand the subject and the limitations of current knowledge can only direct this fascination for wild foods in a positive direction.