Traipsing through the country harvesting the bounty of nature on a René Redzepi-type foraging expedition has become a weekend pilgrimage for many intrepid food-lovers. This fun, free pastime hunting wild greens and edible fungus can introduce some novel flavours into the kitchen, help you get up close and personal with Mother Nature and connect you with one of the greatest groundswells in global food trends. There are, however, some serious health issues and legal consequences that foragers need to consider before pulling on the wellies, grabbing the cane basket and heading bush.
The spring flush of fungus in central Victoria brings out not only morel foragers but also those who hunt the foragers. The morel, a delicious mushroom with a surface resembling deep-brown tripe, is protected under state law, and one state park is so heavily targeted by morel hunters, both amateur and professional, that signs reading “Do not remove fungi” have been erected at its entrances. Authorities have asked us not to identify the park in question, but said that rangers patrol all parks and can hand out $250 on-the-spot fines – not just for picking morels but for removing any plant material. This ban extends to all other plants, too, whether they’re native or introduced.
Foraging educator Doris Pozzi is an expert at finding edible plants and fungus in accessible and legal-to-pick-from public places such as private land, roadsides and some municipal parks. “Sorrel, wood sorrel, fennel, plantain and dandelion,” she reels off, as we wander down a long-forgotten train line that’s now a bike track. “These are all the leafy greens my parents survived on during the war years in Valtellina in northern Italy,” she says, explaining that the plants, being wild, have developed attributes to protect them from predators. Therefore some leaves, particularly older ones, can have compounds which are very bitter, such as those in dandelion, or sour, as in the case of sorrel. She suggests we pick the younger, lighter-coloured and more tender shoots and mix them with some sweeter leaves, such as oak leaf lettuce or cos.
We come across a carpet of scallop-shaped leaves. “Excellent, mallow,” she exclaims. “We shred and steam the leaves, fry them with oil and garlic, simmer them for 10 minutes with stock, then blend to make a soup.” The Egyptians use leaves from a close relative to make their thick, unctuous molokhia soup. Pozzi suggests only eating small amounts at a time to start off with, as some people are allergic to some plants that aren’t necessarily toxic to everyone.
Foraging safely is paramount for chef Luke Burgess of Hobart’s Garagistes restaurant. While there are scores of Australian foraging pretenders following the global trend set in motion by the likes of Noma’s René Redzepi, Burgess is one of the few Australian chefs who takes his foraging seriously. His bookshelves are lined with reference books and he works closely with professional gardener Paulette Whitney. One misty morning, Burgess took me to a block of private land on the lower slopes of Mount Wellington to forage for chickweed, which he uses to dress his carpaccio of octopus. His biggest concern is knowing the history of the land use. “It’s obviously essential to forage in places that are not sprayed with herbicides,” says Burgess.
“Wild herbs soak up the nutrients from the soil, which is why they are so nutritious,” says Whitney, “but they can also bring up heavy metals, so never forage on old industrial sites.” In Tasmania, like Victoria, it is illegal to pick any plant from state parks, so Burgess and Whitney have embarked on a sustainable program of propagating native species for harvest.
For Melbourne’s Ben Shewry, chef at Attica, foraging is something that requires a conservative approach, being sensitive, among other things, to the fact that “what I am about to forage could be the next meal for a wild animal.” Bag in hand, and standing up to his knees in the chilly water of Port Phillip Bay, he carefully gathers sea lettuce, leaf by slippery leaf. A type of algae, sea lettuce is light green and paper-thin, with a chewy texture, a salty flavour and the scent of the sea. It’s just one of the many different wild plants Shewry and his team pick from the seaside and other areas within a few kilometres of his restaurant. Sea lettuce, he explains, is fodder for bottom-dwelling shellfish, such as abalone, so he only gathers a scant amount for himself and changes his foraging locations frequently to avoid depleting any given area. “I want my son to be able to forage just as I did with my dad,” he says.
Conservation is high on the agenda for Swiss-based research ecologist Alison Pouliot. The Australian-born fungus enthusiast returns home annually to run fungi foraging education tours. She describes the crisis that has emerged over the popularity of foraging in Europe that has seen the British Forestry Commission, urged on by the UK National Trust, step up prosecutions on illegal foraging. The claim is that fungus foragers, inspired by high-profile wild mushroom enthusiasts such as Antonio Carluccio and Jamie Oliver, are endangering forest biodiversity by over-harvesting the fungi on which small mammals and insects feed. “One of the big problems is people get greedy and take far too much,” Pouliot says. “Fungus is delicate. It doesn’t last long after you pick it, so only take as much as you need for one feed.” She says tread lightly, don’t disturb the forest floor, and gather the mushrooms into wicker baskets rather than paper or plastic bags, to allow spores to fall to the earth.
Pouliot was responsible for identifying death cap mushrooms in the Castlemaine Botanic Gardens in central Victoria. “These look so much like edible mushrooms that are very popular in China,” she says. Referring to the deaths earlier this year of two restaurant workers in Canberra who were poisoned after eating misidentified death cap mushrooms, she continues, “You have to be 100 per cent certain the mushroom you have picked is edible and not poisonous.” Pouliot says deaths from poisonous mushrooms in Switzerland are almost unheard of because of the pilzkontrolle – mushroom police who inspect foragers’ baskets for poisonous mushrooms.
And just as urban foraging becomes more popular, good places to forage are becoming rarer. Sicilian-born Melbourne chef Rosa Mitchell laments the urban sprawl taking over the city fringes where she forages for cardoons – fat-stalked thistles, close kin to globe artichokes – on the western fringes of Melbourne. With these she makes crespelle, just as her grandmother did, mixing chopped, boiled cardoons with egg, flour, garlic, parsley and parmesan and forming the mixture into fritters, which she fries crisp and golden. She also forages for wild fennel in early spring, plucking the soft, tender fronds to garnish a classic dish of bucatini pasta with sardines, anchovies and pine nuts. “But as the city grows,” she says, “factories are being built over the paddocks where the cardoons and fennel grow.
I come back every spring only to find more concrete and less food to pick.” Mitchell also forages around her farm at Yandoit, near Daylesford in Victoria, picking watercress from streams and wild fruit from the roadsides. She suggests picking watercress only from creeks away from sheep and cattle to avoid picking up parasites such as hydatids. “Foraging is a lot about connecting with the cooking of the past,” says Mitchell. “A lot is about enjoying those intense wild flavours, but it’s also just as much about having a walk in the country with friends.”
For information on Doris Pozzi’s book Edible Weeds and Garden Plants of Melbourne, and her Edible Weeds walks, visit edibleweeds.com.au.
PHOTOGRAPHY RICHARD CORNISH
This article was published in the September 2012 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.