Farm gate to plate may be the latest ‘going out for dinner’ food craze, but there’s one sure-fired food activity that will get the teens off the couch this autumn and it won’t mean re-mortgaging your first-born for the privilege; foraging for wild mushrooms. Crucially a love or otherwise of mushrooms is totally irrelevant here - neither of mine are fungi fans - and nor is any prior picking experience necessary, another ‘phew’ there for us too. So irrespective of food-fussiness or skills, picking mushrooms in Oberon will rate long after the last spoonful of risotto, mushroom of course, has long gone.
For those of you like me who know the name but can’t quite place it, Oberon is located just up the road from the famous Jenolan Caves, west of Katoomba and more than half way to the motor-head Mecca of Bathurst; a three-hour drive from Sydney along the Bells Line of Road and then some. Whilst a big stretch – although possible - for a day trip, use it as a great excuse for an overnight adventure – combined with bushwalks in the Blue Mountains or Kanangra-Boyd National Parks – or a fun stopover activity for those heading through the region.
We start our day with a diversion to Oberon’s Tourist Information. At this time of year staff happily direct us to the best spots nearby and – most importantly – discuss in detail how to identify the edible varieties of exotic wood mushrooms recommended for novices like us. Armed with a map and pictures on our smart phones of the coveted Slippery Jack and the Saffron Milk Cap, we transform into mushroom adventurers in search of fungi and head out of town to the Vulcan State Forest.
Within ten minutes, we’ve parked up and armed with the necessary picking paraphernalia of a bucket and a knife, prepare for what we imagine could be a long and fruitless hunt. But whether it’s our natural instinct for the perfect mushroom spot or the ideal weather conditions, namely hot dry temperatures followed by autumn rain and high humidity, we step instantly into a patch of forest teeming with oversized and gaudily coloured fungi. After much debating and cross checking with the pictures on our phones, it seems we’ve netted our first Saffron Milk Caps and the teens are hooked.
Taking the advice of our mushroom mentor from Tourist Info, we head deeper into the pine forest, originally planted in the eighteen hundreds by British settlers for its’ fast-growing timber properties serving the regions early gold mining efforts. With the European seedlings came mushroom spores and today they proliferate in the more than forty hectares of State Forests in this area between February and early May.
Stepping into the forest here is like entering a mystical world. With its’ tall canopy radiating an eerie dappled light it is peaceful, private and dusted with pine needles many centimetres thick. Whilst Oberon was first known as Bullock Flat, we can’t help but wonder if this magical forest and its’ mushroom rings were the inspiration behind its’ revised and current-day name. After all, Oberon is also the name of Macbeth’s famous fictional Fairy King and the teens loved that one of the roads leading out of town bears his wife Titania’s name.
As the search continues, the teens howl in disgust at a seemingly snot-covered mushroom. They’ve netted the rather disgusting looking but highly edible Slippery Jack variety and the bucket quickly fills up. Note to self – remember to pack wet wipes next time.
Whilst there’s talk of hoards of other pickers out in the autumn sun today, in three hours we have the place entirely to ourselves. Meanwhile our city pooch on her first foraging experience, hares around the forest floor at top speed, excitedly seeking out the alleged wild pigs that reside here – they keep a low profile naturally – and enjoying the adventure.
We smugly fan out deeper into the forest, spotting the pinky orange gills on the underside of the bright orange Saffron Milk Caps and the yellow spongy insides of the dark brown Slippery Jacks. As novice-turned-experienced foragers, we confidently distinguish the inedible toadstools from the two edible mushroom varieties. Anything bright red, speckled and of the non-slippery or saffron-hued is not touched for fear of poisoning and bar pictures for the gram, given a wide-berth. Good to know too, that should we be in doubt about the safety of our bucket of wares, a return trip to Tourist Info to check our mushrooms is an option.
Several hours in, the foraging family are still going strong but we decide to restrain our greed and take only what we can eat this week. After all, in nature’s pantry, as long as we come back before May, the mushrooms are plentiful, the check out queue empty and the prices free.