Sunday, May 27, 2012

Mornington Peninsula, Victoria

I have become obsessed with looking for mushrooms.  I wander around the streets of Footscray with my head down staring into gardens and nature strips, searching for any sign of the bastards.  Then, when I see one I say to myself “there’s one” and I keep on going.  If it looks interesting (and if there aren’t too many people are around) I might take out my phone and snap a photo of it.  That’s about it.  But I cannot not do this.

It happens everywhere I go now.  I try to pretend that I’m not doing it when I’m with überjoi because I know it’s odd and annoying to walk around with someone constantly looking for mushrooms but she can tell what I’m doing and it will probably cause her to kill me one day.

It started because I had read and watched a few things about people foraging – mostly in England and the US.  I get mildly obsessed about things and the idea of being able to identify edible plants and go around picking them really appealed to me.  It’s like some kind of secret hidden knowledge.  Things that people have forgotten or no longer care about.

In England there has been a movement to identify areas for ‘scrumping’ or picking fruit from trees growing in public land.  There are so many different varieties of apples in the UK (Heirloom is the word I am trying to avoid) that aren’t grown commercially for whatever reason (small crops, shelf life, etc) and they are being forgotten.  Watching an episode of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, there will be three new varieties of sea cabbage or wild horsesnip that he uses with his farm grown carrots and beans. I get jealous of this.  He is living this very English, very rustic, romanticised lifestyle that I would mostly prefer to my own.

I understand that the image presented is a lie, that it is just television, but there is an amount of truth behind it.  I may have made up the specific plants listed above but he is foraging in those places and he does live in that house.

I have this dream that I could grow and ‘forage’ a decent enough amount of food that I could make a couple of meals a week just from things I have found or grown.  When we last had a garden I tried to grow a few different things without any real success but given a sunnier spot, a bit more space, I would try to properly plan out an maintain a vegie garden.   I enjoyed growing vegetables and love the idea of finding plants and vegies growing in public land (and being able to identify what won’t kill me).  It seems like this uncommon knowledge shouldn’t be lost.

When I say I would make meals using only things I’ve grown or found of course I’m lying again.  I would still need things like olive oil and rice and other bits.  Meat.  I’m still unsure if I would ever be able to kill a living thing in order to eat it (I know this is ridiculous but it seems needlessly cruel to kill something else when so many slaughtered animals are already available from butchers and supermarkets).

I know that foraging is the thing right now.  I know that if I google search for ‘mushroom hunting’ and filter out the people from r/trees there will be thousands of food blog posts about people picking their own wildly growing produce the way people did commonly 100 years ago.

More TV fantasies: We just watched a Bourdain episode where he is going around the woods of Japan with attendees of the Cook It Raw 2012 conference, watching Rene Redzepi and the cool chef brigade pick wild ginger and Japanese ramps, shitake mushrooms and all of this other amazing produce.  Some things just gathered from the side of the road next to where they were cooking.  If it’s on Bourdain, it’s officially cool.  That’s my barometer for cool anyway.  Will fish tripe become the hot food of 2013?  We’ll have to wait and see.

So I don’t live in the English county-side.  I don’t even have a garden.  I see wild fennel growing by the side of the train tracks on the way to work, but with the used condoms and needles mixed in, I don’t think that’s going to be my next meal.  So with no other regular foraging options, looking for mushrooms just became a thing I did.  It was the closest I could get to roaming the countryside looking for wild produce.  I don’t know what I’m looking at, I can’t tell if they’re edible – I just like to look for them.

In 2011 überjoi found a mushrooming tour that runs out in Mornington.  They take you out for a morning and show you a few species of quite distinctive edible mushrooms.  It was great fun and gave me the opportunity to openly look for fungi, without feeling a like a predatory creep hanging around outside a high school.

In 2012 mushroom season rolled back around and so we signed up for the tour again.  There are more reasons to head down to the Mornington Peninsula other than to just stare at the ground, so we figured to make a weekend of it.  The mushroom tour was on Sunday morning, so we stocked the cats up with dry food and headed down the day before.

Five minutes into our drive we made a pit stop for coffee and cake at Dolcetti on Victoria St, West Melbourne.  I walk past Dolcetti every week on the way to Vic Market and have to physically restrain myself from going in there every time.  They have been featured in the SBS Food Safari show as well as being part of the recent Sweets exhibit at the Melbourne Immigration Museum.  Their cakes are beautiful and delicious, their coffee is always good and the staff are friendly.  Their ricotta cannoli is a speciality, but you could really pick anything from their range and not be disappointed.  I did not spot any mushrooms here.

Fruit tart from Dolcetti.
Chocolate tart from Dolcetti.

Fika’d up, we get back in the car and drive.  The drive is uneventful.  I bore überjoi with anecdotes from podcasts (Nerdist, WTF, Doug Loves Movies) and she restrains herself from hurting me.

We left Melbourne a little later than expected and so it’s around 4:30pm when we get to our next stop – Red Hill Cheese.  They make traditional French style cheese from Cow, Sheep and Goat’s milk.  They offer a two person tasting plate for $5 that gives you a taste of 8-10 different cheeses that are currently available.  This isn’t our first visit to Red Hill Cheese and there is a reason we are heading back there.  Good cheese is very high on the official list of Important Things.  Red Hill Cheese is good cheese.  If you find yourself down this way you should go here.

Cheese tasting plate at Red Hill Cheese.

Excitement.  I spotted some mushrooms through the car window on the way back from Red Hill Cheese.  There were three different species that I could identify – Slippery Jacks, some kind of russula and the famous big red toadstools Amantia Muscaria (thanks Wikipedia).  I picked some slippery jacks and some of the russulas as well.  It was a very good start.

Here is the mandatory disclaimer: Everything I have read on mushrooms or describing mushrooms has to tell you that if you cannot tell with 100% certainty if a mushroom is edible or not – do not eat it.  I am saying this as well.  Don’t eat it if you don’t know.  Really.  I had to talk my father down on the phone a couple of days ago when he called me to say that he had picked some field mushrooms whilst playing golf.  Most likely he had picked yellow stainer mushrooms which would make him vomit and shit water for a week, but it could easily have been a death cap.  They are one of the most poisonous mushrooms in the world and are very common in Victoria.  The whole reason we signed up to go on a guided tour is to have an expert there to show us what to look for.

After the cheese and finding the first mushrooms we headed to our accommodation. überjoi had located a really lovely place called Rangers Run.  They have a range of rooms available and compared to our usual budget motels, it really was one of the nicest places we have stayed at in Australia.  Anyhow – back to the food.

We went out for dinner at a restaurant called The Rocks.  It’s a regular of the good food guide and their online menu looked pretty good, so we booked in.  Being called ‘the Rocks’ the menu has a seafood bent.  There is a range of non-seafood stuff on the menu and the owner Rangers Run recommended their fish and chips but we went our own way.  A trio of oysters to begin with from Tasmania, South Australia and New South Wales.  Each was served raw and still connected to the adductor muscle which is apparently the way to go.

Oyster taste plate: Pipe Clay Lagoon (TAS), Coffin Bay (SA), Sydney Rock Wallace Lakes (NSW).

I won’t go into too much details with each of the dishes.  The quality was good overall.  The calamari was really excellent, as was the salmon pastrami.  We ordered mussels which were served in a coconut and kaffir lime broth.  This was nice but could have benefitted from a kick of spice.  Also there was no bread or rice to soak up the sauce, which should be mandatory for any mussel dish.  We ordered a beetroot and fetta ‘salad’ as überjoi is a fan of the beetroot.  This dish was exactly what it said on the tin; cubes of pickled beetroot and fetta, so nothing to complain about there.

We were sitting right next to the kitchen and I was enjoying watching some of the other dishes come out. The fish and chips did look really awesome.  So did a lot of the other food. They were catering for a big function in another room – being able to spy on the chef checking all of the dishes before they went out was quite fun.  The kitchen was obviously under the pump while we were there but the quality was still pretty consistent.

House cured, coriander, fennel & pepper king salmon pastrami, lemon & watercress.

Pickled beetroot, main ridge dairy goast cheese feta.

Whole queenscliff calamari, BBQ lemon, olive oil.

Mornington mussels, coconut, kaffir lime, ginger & tiger beer.

Desserts were a standout here.  überjoi was lamenting the fact that G wasn’t there to order a third dish for her to photograph.  Still the two desserts we got were delicious.  Would eat again.

Milk sponge cake, meringe, rose water, pomegranate & pistachio.

Coconut parfait, grilled pineapple.

Part of the view at Rangers Run.

The next morning was the mushroom tour.  I busily pointed out mushrooms that I could see from the car window as überjoi drove us to Mornington Estate.  She wasn’t as enthused as I thought she might be about my sightings.  We got to the Estate and were greeted at the door by the two guys who run the tour, Cameron and James.

There is a spiel delivered to the collected group by Cameron.  He warns people about the dangers of picking the wrong mushrooms and then delves into information truffles and morels.  Psychedelic mushrooms are also mentioned – as a warning to anyone thinking of trying them. Yeah... like anyone would want to... yeah...

I ask him about the russula mushrooms I picked the previous day as I’m not sure if they’re edible or not.  There are four really common species, over 600 worldwide and he says that he would err on the side of caution and say this was an inedible type.  So I throw out the russula I picked the day before.

The tour is similar to the year before: A trip down the main road of Awesometown after a truck full of Awesome Sauce has just crashed and spilled right down the centre.  Cameron finds and talks about all of the edible and inedible fungi that we come across.  James holds the mushroom basket and any good examples of edible mushrooms are allowed into it.

There are about 25 people on the tour with you so it’s not exactly a quiet ramble in the woods or anything but being able to find out about each of the mushroom types you come across and feeling relatively confident in your ability to identify a few edible species by the end is really worth the entry fee.

There was a moment during the first tour we went on where our guide stopped the group and explained how being able to actually see mushrooms took time as they were adept at blending into the surrounds.  He said for us to just stop and look around for a minute.  After a few seconds I noticed a couple of mushrooms.  Then a few more.  Then after about 30 seconds of looking it seemed like they were everywhere and we had just been totally blind to them up until we were told they were there.  This is why I look for them because they’re actually hard to see.

I understand that this kind of foraging is purely a novelty.  That the dish I end up putting these mushrooms in would have worked just as well with the zucchini I had in the fridge.  I guess I'll say it's more about the knowledge gained and the opportunity to wander about with my head down that makes the whole thing seem worthwhile to me.

Note: überjoi found the mushrooms above - they are edible and she found three of the four that were found on the day. Yay!
Mushroom bruschetta, served at Moorooduc Estate after the tour.

Mushroom cappuccino, served at Moorooduc Estate after the tour.

After the tour we went mushroom hunting by ourselves.  I ended up with a basket full of pine mushrooms and slippery jacks.  The pleasure in finding and picking these things is immense and I am so glad it's something that I am able to do.  I imagine all of the edible native and introduced plant species that I walk past every day that I have no idea of.  It makes me want to learn more and make more use of all of this wildly occurring produce. Maybe then I can stop looking for things and just be happy in the knowledge that it is all around me.

Words by pisso | Images by überjoi.

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  1. Hi,

    I never eat mushroom but now I want to try it. All dishes looks mouth watering and I want to taste it once. I will surely look out on my trip to cradle huts walk for mushrooms dishes and of-course I will try it.


  2. Wow!! the photos in this post are amazing!! and thanks for thinking of me with dessert XXXXX G

    1. Haha, anytime G ;) Perhaps you can join us next time we head out there... x