“15 to 20 years ago, the only people picking mushrooms in the forest were speaking Italian, Polish, Russian or Czech,” claims environmental educator and professional forager, Diego Bonetto. “Now everyone wants to do it.”
It's a reflection of the mushroom’s cultural expansion and surging popularity. Bonetto has witnessed interest growing in mushrooming in Australia – and in food foraging generally.
“It’s knowledge that people want to bring back into their skill set; the same drive that gets people to do workshops in fermenting, pickling or gardening,” he says. “Food security is a growing thing.”
His mushrooming workshops, which are held over autumn, typically sell out fast. This season – due to gathering restrictions and safety concerns related to the coronavirus pandemic – he's focusing on sharing his knowledge on his website (which also features his guide on foraging for the 16 most common edible ingredients in Sydney). COVID-19 has led to a greater interest in self-sufficiency, with Bonetto noticing that nurseries are selling out of seedlings across Australia, as people rush to plant their own food.
It follows the growth in mushroom foraging tours and cultivation workshops across the country.
Australians, by comparison, are only familiar with (and consume) a handful of mushroom species.
In the 1900s, mushroom author, Robert Wasson, divided the world into mycophilic (mushroom-loving) and myophobic (mushroom-fearing) cultures. Those who relished them as a tasty, healthful food included the French, Italians, Swiss, Russians, Chinese, Japanese and most Indigenous cultures. The English, English-Americans and Canadians traditionally feared them.
In Mushroom: A Global History, Cynthia Bertelsen reveals that Anglo-Saxon cultures historically associated the fungi with witchcraft and poisoning, toadstools and slimy products of the dirt.
For Bonetto, who grew up in rural northern Italy, mushrooming was a way of life. He learnt to harvest wild mushrooms, including porcini and ink caps, in the local fields and mountains, from his uncles and aunts. “It was common practice to send off the kids to collect the wild things. That was just a continuum of imparting traditional knowledge in the form of chores. It was not as romantic and as adventurous as many people think.”
“It’s knowledge that people want to bring back into their skill set."
Bonetto helps people recover their forgotten genetic memory of foraging. “They go off and look for these patterns I told them to look for. And they see nothing. Then, eventually they see one.” What results next is the forming of what he describes as a type of pattern recognition: “It's your ability to see patterns in the landscape – that vibrancy or shape, that hump that appears under the leaves.”
This leads to development of what Bonetto calls the “mushroom eyes” (the ability to see mushrooms in the landscape) and “mushroom fever” (an addiction to finding more). “It’s related to genetic memory, to the fact that as a species we can become euphoric whenever we find the tools to see food in the landscape,” he says.
His workshops are particularly popular with young families, chefs, survivalists and old migrants. “The old migrants know it all. They come to the workshops to feel validated. Because, up to 10 years ago, everyone thought they were a bunch of weirdos.”
If you’re new to mushrooming, Bonetto recommends going with a guide, which is especially important when looking for field mushrooms, which have many dangerous look-a-likes, including one known revealingly as the "vomiter".
The mushrooms that Bonetto teaches people to identify (and the varieties commonly found in our shopping trolleys) usually are foreign varieties.“The vast majority of the Australian fungi have not been named yet,” he explains. “We don’t know how many are edible and you can’t test them because there are toxins in the kingdom that we don’t even know exist.”
The safest and easiest places to forage for wild mushrooms are state pine plantations from Brisbane along the southeast of Australia all the way to Adelaide, he says. Fungi (which favour dark, cool, yet humid conditions) are most abundant in autumn.
“There are deep lessons to be gained by learning the simple skills of finding food in the landscape,” he says. “It’s a connection to the wilder you, cultural stories that relate to you, your genes and your family.”
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