Come every autumn, beautiful orange mushrooms start showing up everywhere in Australia, from market stalls to restaurant menus.
While they're commonly called pine mushrooms, they're also referred to as saffron milk caps (because of their colour) and lactarius deliciosus (their scientific name). Originally growing in European pine forests, it's believed they came to Australia by accident, when trees were brought over. Now, you’ll find them in most states, at the bottom of pine trees.
While foraging for herbs, mushrooms and native ingredients are all the rage now, it wasn't always the case.
"When I started mushroom picking 26 years ago in Australia, there were no English-speaking people in the forest. Most people thought it was weird, they didn't think you could go in the forest to pick things from nature and cook them," explains Margaret Mossakowska, who started foraging when she was a child in Poland.
"I'd bring a harvest of pine mushrooms into the office to share them and people were asking me what they were and where I got them from. When I'd told them it was from the forest, it was the end of the conversation because mushrooms were supposed to come from a store."
Back then, she'd encounter fellow Poles, as well as a lot of Ukrainians, Serbs and Croats, and a few Greeks and Italians while foraging. These days, she takes groups with her to teach them about wild mushrooms picking and preserving.
Depending on where you are in Australia and the weather, the pine mushroom season can last from a couple of weeks to several months during autumn. This year, the season is expected to last longer, until late June to early July in certain states.
If you want to go foraging for mushrooms, Mossakowska says you should go with somebody who is experienced or a tour guide, as a lot of poisonous mushrooms look similar to edible ones.
If you buy your pine mushrooms at a market, don't clean them under water, just wipe or brush them lightly to remove the dirt. If you bruise or cut the mushroom, it will bleed an orange sap and the bruised part will turn green. While it's not the prettiest, the mushroom is still edible and the colour will disappear when cooking.
Damian Pike, who has had his mushroom stall at the Prahran Market for over three decades, says the demand for pine mushrooms has blown up in the last few years. "For people who've never tried them, I recommend a lovely pasta or risotto," he says. "I like them in butter with a little bit of garlic and fresh parsley. It's a three-minute dish. I like to serve them with scrambled eggs, and it’s lovely in an omelette. It goes extremely well with lighter meat too, like chicken.
"Keep it simple, don't muck around with them too much. When they're small, keep them whole. When they're large, slice them," he adds.
Mossakowska is also a fan of frying them with butter, but she'll add pepper and onion, "the Polish way".
"I like drying mushrooms because I can make mushroom salt or store them and put them into soups, stews and dumplings once they're rehydrated," she says.
"The simplest way is eating them raw. You put them upside down and salt them to soften them."
"The simplest way is eating them raw. You put them upside down and salt them to soften them. It takes about one or two hours after salting for them to be ready and their flavour is fantastic. Some people say it's a bit gingery."
If you bought or foraged too many pine mushrooms, you can pickle, ferment or confit them so they'll keep longer.
Sunda's head chef Khanh Nguyen is a big fan of their texture: "They are firmer than other mushrooms so they maintain their shape while they cook. You can cook them for a long time, get a lot of flavour into them and they won't break down as much as other mushrooms."
At the moment, he makes a smoked bone marrow congee topped with pine mushrooms confit in ghee. He also uses the trimmings of the mushrooms to make an earthy sauce.
"Pine mushrooms are used a lot in western cuisine and in the restaurants I used to work at, they were usually served with lots of butter and garlic. When I opened Sunda, that's always something I wanted to use and incorporate in Asian cuisine. By making a buttery and rich congee, it works well with the mushrooms," he says.
There's no need to stick to European cuisine. They are as delicious in pasta, as they are in dumplings or congee.
"Be adventurous with pine mushrooms. You can prepare them in so many ways," says Mossakowska.
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