Off the eaten track
Once an outdated way of gathering food, people have returned to food foraging, in the hope of discovering new cuisines. Rose Moloney investigates the trend that has many asking, in a world of pollution, is eating unknown, wild food really safe?
Two years ago Trina So, blogger at The Gourmet Forager, bought some wild saffron milk cap mushrooms for the first time at a store in Haberfield. Her friend’s mother frequently picked her own mushrooms in Oberon, so the idea intrigued her.
So bought the saffron milk caps, also known as pine mushrooms, cooked them and ate them, safe in the knowledge that she had purchased them from a shop.
“I didn’t do any research, of course, because I assumed that if they were on sale at a grocer, that they’re going be safe,” says So.
She experienced a shock the next morning when she woke up to find that her urine had turned bright red. “I thought I was dying,” she says.
After researching the mushrooms, So realised that the discolouration of her urine was a harmless, but rare, side effect of eating pine mushrooms. She says: “It doesn’t happen for everyone, but it does happen.”
Food foraging refers to the process of going out and gathering wild food sources. This can mean anything from mushrooms, fruits and other vegetables, to edible plants, weeds, seeds and roots.
Unfortunately the risks associated with foraging are not limited to bizarre but harmless side effects like So experienced.
“The sort of the dangers involved in foraging probably far outweigh the sort of the safe areas,” says So.
Dr James Smith, microbiologist at the Queensland University of Technology, says these risks are particularly pertinent when it comes to foraging for wild mushrooms: “The highest risk is misidentification, particularly with mushrooms…if you get it wrong the consequences can be very serious, you can have serious intoxication and even if you survive the intoxication you can have chronic problems like liver damage or permanent neurological damage.”
The ABC reported that two people died in Canberra early this year after mistakenly eating the deadly death cap mushroom. Chef Liu Jun, 38, and kitchen hand Tsou Hsiang, 52, picked and prepared the wild mushrooms for a private party at Harmonie German Club’s Chinese bistro on New Years Eve. Both Liu and Tsou died as a result of consuming the fatal mushrooms.
Dr Smith says: “That was probably someone that had gone out previously and picked edible mushrooms, so they would have had some skill at identifying mushrooms, they just got it wrong, and all you’ve got to do is get it wrong once and a couple of people die.”
Humans have been foraging for food for thousands of years. Yet lately it has become quite a trend as environmental enthusiasts search for sustainable food sources, and chefs attempt to spice up their menus.
Oberon, known for its abundance of edible wild mushrooms, is one of the main foraging areas in NSW. Jennifer Youman, Oberon Council Tourism and Development Officer, says that more people are enquiring about foraging than ever before.
In 2000, 30 people made enquiries at the Oberon visitors centre. In 2008, 1000 enquiries were made and in 2011 over 2000 enquiries were made. Youman says these statistics refer to “people coming to the centre alone,” and that many more people forage without first seeking advice at the centre.
Those that do enquire are advised to only pick the saffron milk cap and the slippery jack mushrooms. The centre always has an expert on hand to assist people in identifying whether or not a mushroom is safe. But the rapidly increasing number of enquiries means it has had to implement restrictions on the type of advice the experts can offer.
Youman says: “It has become so popular, we’ve actually had to restrict to saying, ‘Yes that’s definitely a saffron milk cap’ and ‘Yes that’s definitely a slippery jack’, we can’t now give verbal confirmation on any other type of mushroom.”
Diego Bonetto is one man that is inspiring others to become involved in food foraging. Bonetto grew up foraging on a farm in Italy, and after moving to Australia 20 years ago he taught himself about the different types of edible wild food available in NSW.
He holds monthly urban foraging tours where he shares his knowledge about the abundance of food available in industrial areas that would otherwise go to waste.
Sitting on a patch of grass alongside the Cooks River in Tempe, Bonetto can point out at least three different types of edible weeds in an area of ten square metres to his tour group– sowthistle, flat weed and dandelion. He identifies each weed by looking briefly at their flowers, roots and stems.
“The concept of weeds is a man made concept,” says Bonetto. “We define what’s right and what’s wrong to eat, these assumptions are being spoon fed to us from industrial agriculture, so valuable products like weeds are being set aside.”
Despite Bonetto warning the tour group that the Cooks River is polluted and that Marrickville Council may have sprayed herbicides in some areas, the 20 tour goers eagerly taste the different types of edible weeks and berries.
Rachelle Williams, a Green Food Safety Coach, says this is another issue surrounding food foraging: “The food may have been sprayed with chemicals and they might not know what chemicals,” she says.
“So food foraging might be interesting and it might be a fun thing to do, but I don’t think it’s particularly safe.”
However Bonetto says: “When people say ‘This may have been sprayed’ I say ‘Don’t worry everything you eat from the supermarkets has been sprayed.’”
The responsibility of finding and ensuring foraged food is safe relies heavily on the foragers, as no formal procedures have been put in place to ensure foraged food being found and sold is suitable to eat.
Despite the risks associated with foraging, Karl Firla, head chef at Newtown restaurant Oscillate Wildly, has been able to successfully incorporate a number of foraged foods into his menu.
The current menu at Oscillate Wildly showcases various sea grasses and sea asparagus’ such as sea blight and samphire. As well as cape gooseberries, wild violets, perslane, nasturiums and the buttery tasting slippery jack mushrooms, Firla forages for all of these ingredients himself on his days off. He says: “Those sorts of products that we’re looking for you just can’t readily buy, so if you want to use it you have to go and find it basically.”
From the crunchy refreshing taste of purslane to the sharp sweet flavour of cape gooseberries, Firla uses foraged elements to add unique flavours and textures.
“If we’re unsure of something, we do obviously do some research and we’ll have a professional check it for us prior to obviously being able to use it.”
So the question remains, is foraging really something that ordinary people should undertake?
Firla says that people wanting to forage for themselves can take the same strict procedures as he does at his restaurant: “There are ways to check…you can generally go to some of the nurseries, they’ll have a horticulturalist or somebody on hand that you can go and ask.”
Firla says while it is necessary to show caution when drawing from wild sources that doesn’t mean they have to go to waste: “I think in Australia, besides indigenous people, we haven’t really looked at what’s available to us, to it’s full potential and I think people are just starting to realise that we do have amazing produce that’s very different from buying something from a farm.”