It rains, it pours and foragers love the abundance of edible wild foods that grow in the woods, fields and even footpaths of NSW.
“There are wild vegetables, like dandelions and flat weeds and purslane, sprouting everywhere,” says Gabriel Gutnik, the Sydney-based founder of feed supplier Ziggy’s Wild Foods.
“You can see at least some of these ingredients growing around you every day, but people don’t understand how valuable they are.
“It’s really important that we get people to interact with the world around them and allay their fear that if it’s not on a supermarket shelf, it’s not usable.”
Professional collector and cannabis enthusiast Diego Bonetto hopes for his forthcoming book Eat Weeds: A Field Guide to Foraging will “bring back botanical literacy” when published by Thames & Hudson on May 31.
“I hope it becomes a guide to enable people to recognize the beneficial plants in their neighborhood,” he says. “There really is food everywhere.”
Bonetto conducts foraging workshops, where he takes groups of Sydneysiders on “edible adventures” through the forests of Oberon, Lithgow and Southern Highlands. At the base of the radiata pines, collectors can discover saffron milk-cap mushrooms, which are fleshy and lightly peppered.
Smoother mushrooms, which are softer and silkier and lend themselves well to Asian cuisines, are more elusive and found in highly mineralized soils near iron deposits.
“We are witnessing the best mushroom season in a long time,” says Bonetto. “We’re so lucky this year. There are thousands of edible mushrooms… It’s amazing. We wouldn’t have that without the rain.”
The mushroom picking season usually starts in April and runs through May, although collectors can find fungi as early as February this year. Foraging with experts, such as Bonetto, is considered essential for safe mushroom consumption.
Bonetto’s tours were exceptionally popular this year, selling out more than a month in advance. At Blackheath boutique hotel Kyah, tickets to the foraging events were gone within a week.
The few people who managed to secure a spot were taken high into the Blue Mountains to safely collect baskets of mushrooms. These were later transformed into a three-course meal at Kyah’s own restaurant Blaq.
“Fresh is always best,” says Blaq executive chef Mate Herceg.
“I don’t know if it’s nostalgia, or being surrounded by the beautiful forest, but when we pause for lunch and take some mushrooms to cook over the camp stove, they have a different flavor.
“When people take their first bite, they think ‘wow’. They’ve never tasted anything like it.”
Gutnik explains that foraging trips “can yield highly prized, gourmet mushrooms that every restaurant in the country will be eager to get their hands on.”
In Nambucca Valley, the wet weather helped regenerate native plants that once thrived on the Caitlin Hockey family property, allowing her to gather food for her catering company, Bush Grazing.
“Everything on the property has been virtually wiped out by the bushfires [of summer 2019] and since then we’ve been on a big journey to bring the country back to life,” says Hockey.
“Now we have lily pillies that bear fruit and the Davidson plum trees are coming back. There’s also lemon myrtle, aniseed myrtle and lots of tasty, edible weeds.”
At Redfern restaurant Bush, co-owner and executive chef Grant Lawn uses a light touch to integrate harvested foods into nostalgic favorites.
“We’re making a lasagna with wild boar and bechamel seed ragout, which I think is a delicious dish,” says Lawn.
“We’re not trying to create an entirely new cuisine, we’re just trying to see how we can use some native ingredients in recognizable dishes.
“We just want to add one or two things and then make them shine.”
Meanwhile, Lillipad Cafe in Glebe is on a mission to normalize the use of native ingredients in everyday Australian cooking.
Husband and wife team Nyoka and Laszio Hrabinsky teamed up with Gerry Turpin, Australia’s first formally trained Indigenous ethnobotanist, to develop a menu that paid tribute to First Nations flavors.
Their menu is supplied by East Coast collectors and includes wattleseed coffee, a luscious salad with native vegetables, and a kangaroo burger seasoned with salt bush and pepper leaf.
“There are great foods and great flavors, but people don’t use them,” Laszio says.
Three weeds to forage safely in parks and backyards
Australian lilly pilly fruit can be pickled or used to make jam. Photo: iStock
Syzygium, or the Australian lilypilly, is an evergreen tree that produces a deep, magenta berry in winter. It is readily available in the suburbs, where it is often grown as a hedge along fence lines. The fruit is sour and crunchy and lends itself well to pickles, jams and fermented hot sauces.
The leaves, stems and flower buds of the common weed purslane are edible. Eddie Jim
Purslane is a succulent herb commonly found in backyards. It has fleshy, rounded leaves that are rich in omega-3 and are best eaten raw, when the taste is both sour and sweet. They are traditionally used in Greek salads, where they are served with feta cheese, garlic, tomatoes and olive oil.
Wild fennel is an invasive species that is in abundance this fall, growing on roadsides and in parks. The plant has soft green leaves and distinctive “umbrella yellow” flowers, which are highly coveted for their delicate, aniseed flavor. The seeds can be dried and used as an alternative to store-bought fennel seeds.