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Mushroom foraging proves a peaceful pursuit

Down to the woods we go, with a sharp knife and sensible shoes. Wind howls through the pines. From the undergrowth I pluck a teeny candy-red mushroom that could be a dancing fairy’s house, or its studio apartment. ”You little shit,” says Janina Knight. ”You will end up in hospital.” There are many mushrooms on the forest floor but only two types fit for eating. As in life, the prettiest creatures are the most deadly.
Nanjing Night Net

”If you don’t know what it is, don’t touch it,” says Knight, 67, smiling. She stoops to slice the stem of a slimy brown mushroom, hiding amid fallen pine needles in state forest outside Oberon, three hours over the mountains from Sydney. ”I like the smell,” she says, ”it’s beautiful and earthy – fresh even though it’s not.”

Her small basket, made from the roots of old pine trees, is filling with funny-named fungi: saffron milk caps (lactarius deliciosus) and slippery jacks (snail snotiosus). ”Some people come out here with buckets and garbage bins to fill. You would swear it’s the end of the world and it’s going to feed the multitudes,” she says. ”I only get enough for a couple of feeds.”

Wild pine mushrooms revel in that sombre space around autumn, when days cool and thunderstorms rage. We forage in the forest shadows, to the rich waft of damp soil and the beat of birds and cattle trucks bellowing. ‘You can’t go into a supermarket to find these mushrooms,” says Knight, dressed in a purple vest, brown slacks and slip-ons. ”It’s a serene place. No phone reception, no computers – freedom. You can come and think and get lost.”

And so I think about mushrooms: why are so many poisonous? How many might I eat? Why is that one as big as a child’s head?

The Australian Mushroom Growers’ Association reckons annual mushroom consumption has grown fivefold since the late 1970s, from 600 grams a head to 3.2 kilograms (the world record is four kilograms of fried mushrooms eaten in eight minutes by Molly Schuyler, a mother of four from Omaha, in 2013).

The association says 93 per cent of mushroom purchasers believe they are healthy for them. The less said about the other 7 per cent the better. ”They are edible fungi but we don’t call them that because people think about thrush and athlete’s foot,” says association general manager Greg Seymour. ”So we call it the ‘Mushroom Kingdom’.”

Foraging in the Mushroom Kingdom is not encouraged by the association, for fear people might pick something poisonous. ”You really have to know what you are doing,” Seymour says.

Even then, hazards abound. ”If you eat slippery jacks and don’t take the skins off that can cause a bit of upset for people with a sensitive tummy,” Seymour says. That would explain my flatulence, I say. ”I have no evidence for that,” Seymour says.

An information sheet in the Oberon Visitor Centre warns against picking anything with white caps, white stems or white dots. So when we enter the forest Knight steers me towards the rust-coloured saffron milk caps, which cry orange tears when broken open.

Her mother taught her to forage for mushrooms around old pine trees as a child. She used the shiny red ones as cheap insect spray. ”They would wrap rags around their hands and put them in a bowl and the pungent smell would kill flies,” she says. ”Mortein works for me.”

Beyond the old pine trees and blackberry bushes are rolling green hills and MDF factories. But deep in the forest is sombre and still. Rain has washed the wild mushrooms until they glisten.

Later, Knight will wash and cut and cook today’s haul, with onion and truffle butter and parsley picked from her garden. But now she sits on a rotting tree stump in the forest, by a clump of tiny white mushrooms painted with dew drops, and starts to cry. ”It’s very emotional,” she says. ”When I come out here I like to leave no footprints. I don’t like showing this off a lot. It’s my own thing. I come out here and just let it all go.”

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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