It’s amazing the delicious seasonal produce you can find locally, if you just stray from the beaten track a little. And no, I’m not referring to the Farmer’s Market, but to the path less travelled known as ‘foraging’.
Edible, wild growth can be found in abundance throughout New Zealand, even in our towns and cities. Of course, our beautiful Central Otago is teeming with tasty treats if you just know where to look. I was initially inspired to forage in Scotland when I had a wild foods supplier, but it was too brief to really get involved as I would have liked.
Since then I have missed the taste of wild mushrooms and I actually see them all the time here, it’s just so much easier to just pick up the phone and order them. With a bit of egging on from my colleague, also called Ben, we have pushed each other to finally get out and start doing it. Our latest foraging expedition ranged from Frankton to Queenstown. You can’t get more local than that!
Autumn is the best time for mushrooms and we managed to find a few varieties. Unfortunately, there weren’t enough mushrooms to use in the restaurant, so to prevent waste we had to eat them ourselves – they were tasty nonetheless.
Most of you will be familiar with the humble field mushroom. They are often available in supermarkets, but are also known and pop up all over the place. The wild variety certainly has far more flavour and texture than shop bought. With these (and with most of the mushrooms we found) I simply fried with butter, garlic, herbs and a squeeze of lemon. As the mushroom count was few and far between, we basically just had them as a snack to get an idea of texture and flavour, for future reference.
The birch bolete grows only under silver birch trees and is in the same family as porcini, so quite similar and very, very tasty. The painted bolete grows exclusively under douglas firs, also in the same family as porcini. These are everywhere so I found quite a few on Sunday. I had a few friends over to try both boletes for size (and we are all still alive!). After taste-testing I found the birch bolete to be far superior. I wasn’t overly impressed with the painted bolete, so although the supply is thriving I haven’t gone back to get more.
Giant puffballs are edible while they are young and still white inside. They are actually very common if you know where to look. I have found them all over but they are usually where you least expect them. I found two on the side of Frankton Road that we had pan-fried. They are very savoury, with a slightly rubbery texture which we likened to scrambled eggs. I experimented with pickling some, which may even make their way into the True South kitchen!
Shaggy ink caps are the ugly ducklings of the mushroom family; I think that’s why people shy away from eating them. These pop up a lot too, usually on walking tracks. They are one of the easiest mushrooms to identify as there’s nothing else that really that looks like it! Pick them when they are white, not black, as this is when they are at their best. This image shows one starting to turn black, which was within a couple of hours of picking, so they deteriorate really quickly. They are very delicate, but are worth it as they taste good. Also very fibrous, for me they have a similar texture to meat.
We found loads of elderberries, which it seems taste a lot like blackcurrants when you add sugar to them! Last year we made elderberry pate de fruit for our petit fours. We were really happy with the result so have done the same this year - it lasts a long time so is great for both in the restaurant and at home. The rest (there really were a lot!) I have pureed and frozen until I find more inspiration for them. I will definitely try a jelly to serve with the pine needle ice cream.
The pine needles aren’t something you would add to a salad, but due to their refreshing scent and flavour I was able to use them for a pine-infused ice cream. Next up I am going to play around with extracting an essence.
I’m no foraging expert, I only know a few mushroom varieties by heart so usually it’s a game of trial and error. Generally,I find something new and take one home to identify on the internet or in my books, but sometimes it’s the reverse and I am keeping an eye out for something I am hoping to find. Mostly I just like to dabble and try to find things.
My key tips would are to be inquisitive; smell things and touch things. Research what you pick until you have a good idea it’s safe, then taste a little to see how it goes and take it from there. Be very careful as there are lots of things in nature that look the same, but one may be tasty and the other deadly! Start with some safe bets like the shaggy ink cap to gain confidence, then you will become more adventurous. Take a guidebook with you if you have one.
If you have some free time and nice weather, foraging is the perfect way to while away a morning. Just be sure to always ask permission before harvesting from private property; and wash everything thoroughly before use in case it has been exposed to contaminants. But above all, have fun!