Mushroom hunting in Australia’s pine forest

Intro: We’re stuck in Australia for two extra weeks, waiting for Russian visas. Here’s one of the things we did in the meantime!

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My box full of pine mushrooms (Lactarius deliciosus).

We’ve been trying to find things to occupy our time (besides catching up on the nearly 50-strong backlogged blog posts), and last week I found out about a foraging and wild food workshop led by Diego Bonetto. He offers tons of plant foraging workshops, but the one that caught my eye was a mushroom foraging workshop—the first of Australia’s season, thanks to the overwhelming abundance of rain in the last two weeks. I signed up and got my wicker basket and kitchen knife ready.

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I board the train in the pre-dawn darkness to be at the meeting point on time.

The workshop takes place in state forests two hours outside of Sydney, so Diego offered transport to those of us without cars. I’m up at 5:30 am to catch the train to the meeting spot at 6:45 am. Diego meets us cheerfully, and all of us pile into a van and drove out of Sydney on the M31 highway. After half an hour, the city gives way to countryside. Diego points out plants from the car. “That’s fennel. It’s a good food and medicinal herb. Those trees there are wild apples. They grow from discarded apple cores.” It’s amazing that he can recognize the plants at a glimpse from the highway.

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Chestnuts that Diego found on the ground within minutes of arriving.
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Diego cuts the first mushroom from the ground.

When we arrive at our first foraging ground, we meet the rest of the attendees and gather around a table to begin the workshop. He first gives thanks to the original Aboriginal tribe who once inhabited the land and acknowledges previous generations who carried the knowledge of the environment to the present day. “Knowledge doesn’t belong to one person, or one group. It belongs to everyone. That’s why I’m sharing it with you,” he told us. Then he gives us the first assignment: go into the woods and pick everything we see that looks like a mushroom, put it in our baskets, and bring it back to the table for show and tell.

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Finding a tiny jumping spider along with the mushroom.

I experience a brief pang of trepidation at the thought of putting any mushroom into my basket. Many species are inedible or poisonous, and the thought of them jostling around in my basket isn’t a comforting one. Still, we trudge into the forest and start picking mushrooms—a slimy orange-capped one here, a lemon yellow one with brown “fur” there, and a thin-stalked tiny thimble over there. In fifteen minutes I’ve gathered at least 10 different species, and I’m still finding more. The prolific rain has produced a bounty.

Near the end of my collecting I stumble across what appears to be an all-too-familiar mushroom – the fly agaric, Amanita muscaria. I’m hesitant to cut one and put it in my basket. A. muscaria shares a genus with the famously deadly Amanita phalloides, the death cap, and Amanita bisporigera, the destroying angel. A single mushroom of either of these species is often enough to kill a person. While A. muscaria is nowhere near as toxic, it can still induce nausea and vomiting. And as one of the most cosmopolitan mushrooms in the world, it would be a good one to teach others. I cut three specimens in various stages of development and place them in my basket.

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Our mushroom finds, spilled out onto a picnic table.
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A mysterious fur-lined mushroom cap, potentially Tricholomopsis rutilans, also known as Plums-and-custard. Don’t try to eat it.

Back at the table, Diego instructs us to put the mushrooms we’ve found on the table. “Pick out the unique ones, especially ones not on the table yet,” he suggests, as we pile dozens of mushrooms before him. Once most of the mushrooms are out, he begins sorting them into groups based on similarity until we have more than a dozen piles of different mushrooms. He points at two piles and says “Look at these two. These are the two species that are edible and you want to collect. This one,” he gestures to a pile of dark, slime-capped mushrooms, “are Slippery Jills. Edible and good. They’re usually later in the season, so we won’t find many now. And these,” he gestures to another of orange-white capped, hearty mushrooms, “these are the saffron milk cap, also called the pine mushroom. Also edible and delicious. This is what we’re here for today.”

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Our mushroom collection, after Diego guides us in sorting it.

One of the attendees pipes up, “what about the rest of them?” Diego grins and responds, “What about them? I don’t know them, and I wouldn’t trust myself to identify them safely enough to eat.” Then he picks up a saffron milk cap and a similar-looking orange mushroom and asks, “What differences do you see?” We spend several minutes examining our piles of mushrooms and I realize how brilliant this exercise is: it teaches you not only the mushrooms you’re looking for, but also how to distinguish them from other mushrooms around at the same time of year. It’s a physical exercise of the mushroom forager’s mantra “When in doubt, leave it out.”

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Amanita muscaria, the fly agaric. It’s mildly poisonous, although there have been some reports of use in traditional medicine and even as food.

We pile back into Diego’s car and drive down to our main foraging ground: Belanglo State Forest. While historically known for more sordid things, Belanglo is primarily planted pine forest and so ideal for finding pine mushrooms. Around this time of year it becomes an epicenter for Polish visitors because of the huge number of pine mushrooms that sprout every fall. When we arrive at the forest, we find campers there already busy with collecting.

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Diego prepares pine mushrooms for frying.

Diego sets up his cooking equipment at one of the picnic tables and sends us into the forest to find mushrooms. If we had any worries that we would have to compete with the campers already there, they disappear as soon as we step between the trees: hundreds of pine mushroom caps dot the landscape, as far as you can see between the rows of trees. They intersperse with clusters of fly agarics and a plethora of other mushrooms I don’t recognize. I ignore these and focus on collecting only the best quality pine mushrooms: firm fleshed and not wobbly (wobbly means the inside has been eaten by insects), brightly colored with no bruising. With the panoply of pine mushrooms at my feet, I can afford to be choosy.

 

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Pine mushrooms poke their caps through the pine needles on the forest floor.

 

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Unloved: a pile of pine mushrooms past their prime, dumped by someone else. At least they return to the ecosystem here.

I fill my basket half-full with mushrooms, reluctant to take more than I can eat in the next few days, and return to the picnic table where Diego is frying a few pine mushroom caps. In the meantime, he passes around a pickled version of pine mushrooms for us to share, and someone starts slicing bread. We stand around eating pine mushrooms and share stories. We talk about what it is to forage food from the wild. One person is here to learn about the land. Another is an aspiring chef who worked in a wild food restaurant and got hooked on the idea of foraging his food. Others are people who just want to know, to have the knowledge of their surroundings.

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The picnic basket.
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We listen to Diego talk about pine mushroom recipes and the significance of foraging.

Back at home, I clean the mushrooms and prep them for cooking. I’m personally a fan of drowning them in cream and serving them on pasta, but there are so many that I’ll have to branch out. I cook a hearty serving of the aforementioned creamy mushroom pasta, then turn the rest into a tomato and mushroom stir-fry known in Turkish as sucuk. It’s all delicious (and, regrettably, I photographed none of it). As I’m cooking, I remember one of the things Diego mentioned at our communal meal: “The food here isn’t free. You’re taking it from nature, and even if it sounds hippie, you should give respect and thanks in your own way.” I have my own ritual of giving thanks – bowing three times and remembering where my food comes from.

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Pine mushrooms, with kitchen counter to scale.
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And now, more up close and personal.

Fried banana crepe cake

Intro: We’re stuck in Australia for two extra weeks, waiting for Russian visas. Here’s one of the things we did in the meantime!

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CAKE. If it’s not clear from the photo, I don’t have a whole photography studio at my disposal for food pictures while on this trip. 

For the first time in months, I have a full kitchen at my disposal. Australia has a lot of bananas—markets here are crammed with bananas, including the somewhat forlorn-looking, past their prime bananas that find their way to the discount cart.

Banana-bread was inevitable. But it turns out my tolerance for making banana bread is about once a week and after my first round baking Saint Deb of Smitten Kitchen’s Jacked-Up Banana Bread (https://smittenkitchen.com/2006/11/jacked-up-banana-bread/), we still had 4 more bananas languishing in the kitchen. I returned to Smitten Kitchen for another banana recipe, but the only recipe that wasn’t banana bread was a banana crepe cake recipe that used only one banana. If readers wanted more banana, Deb suggested layering the cake with sliced bananas. That was a no go, since at the time we thought Stoytcho was allergic to raw banana.

 

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Enter a caption

 

But what if I filled it with fried sliced bananas? I googled around until I found a recipe I mostly liked. I subbed the white sugar for brown sugar, because that just seems right when you’re working with bananas. The final cake was a 3 hour process of making crepes, frying bananas, making filling, assembling cake, and finishing up with the butterscotch topping. But it was TOTALLY worth it—with a combination of bananas, brown sugar, and cream cheese, this cake takes the cake.

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Sources:
Smitten Kitchen’s Banana Crepe Cake with Butterscotch
Fried Bananas

Ingredients:

For the crepes:

  • 4 tbsp butter
  • 1 large speckled brown banana
  • 1 to 1.5 c milk
  • ¾ all-purpose flour
  • 4 large eggs
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • ½ to 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • ¾ tsp freshly ground cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1/8 tsp freshly crushed cloves.

For the filling:

  • 1 8 oz brick of cream cheese at room temperature
  • 1.5 c plain greek yogurt
  • ¼ to 1/3 c granulated sugar (to taste)
  • ½ tsp vanilla extract

For the fried bananas:

  • 4 overripe bananas
  • 3-4 tbsp brown sugar
  • 3 tsp freshly-ground cinnamon
  • ¾ tsp nutmeg
  • neutral oil to fry the bananas

For the Topping:

  • ½ heavy whipping cream
  • ¼ c light brown sugar
  • 1 tbsp (15 g) unsalted butter*
  • ½ c chopped, toasted macadamia nuts**
  • ½ to 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • ¼ tsp salt

Process:

I simplified Deb’s recipe a lot because I’m in someone else’s kitchen without access to a mixer/blender/spatulas/etc. It did have a mortar and pestle and whole spices, so we did fresh grinds of all the spices, which was simultaneously better tasting and a huge pain in the hands. The kitchen also lacked standard measuring cups and spoons, but it turns out our camping kit has measurements for cups on the side (yay!) and we just fudged the spoon measurements with silverware in the kitchen. So take all of the smaller measurements with a pinch of salt.

    1. Make your crepe batter: In a bowl large enough to hold all the crepe ingredients, mash banana with a fork until whole thing is wet and there are only a few small chunks. Add melted butter and mix. Then mix in 1 c milk and all of the flour, eggs, brown sugar, vanilla extract, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. Cover the bowl and put in the fridge for an hour or more to chill. (Deb recommends overnight and up to two days).
    2. Fry banana slices for filling: Slice overripe bananas to a thickness of 2 cm (~3/4 inch) and prep a plate for the fried bananas with a paper towel on it. Fill the pan with enough oil to cover the bottom and start it on medium heat. Mix brown sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg in a bowl. When the oil in the pan begins to shimmer, dip the banana rounds into the sugar-spice mix and then drop in the pan. Fry for 2-3 mins on one side, then flip and fry 1-2 minutes on the other. Then transfer to prepared plate with paper towel. Repeat frying process, adding more oil as needed, until there are no banana rounds left. Let cool while you make the crepes and rest of filling.
    3. Make the crepes: Heat neutral oil or butter in a skillet over medium heat and pull out a plate for the finished crepes. Pull the batter out of the fridge—if it seems too thick, add an extra ½ c milk to thin it. When oil begins to shimmer, spoon ~1/4 c of batter into the skillet and tilt the pan so it covers the bottom. Cook until it browns on one side 3-4 min, then flip and cook the other side. Repeat until all crepe batter is gone. (Or better yet, get your boyfriend to do it since he’s an expert at making crepes.) Set crepes aside to cool.
    4. Make the filling: Beat room temperature cream cheese with a spoon until fluffy, then add yogurt and mix. When there are no more lumps of cream cheese, add sugar and vanilla and beat until combined.
    5. Assemble crepe cake: Put first (ideally biggest) crepe on what will be your serving plate—this cake isn’t moving once you make it. Spread ~1/4 c of the filling onto the crepe and add 15-20 slices of fried banana onto the filling. Add a second crepe and spread another ~1/4 c of filling, this time with no fried bananas (we had structural integrity concerns with a full banana stack). Repeat process, alternating between fried-banana and banana-less layers until you run out of crepes, filling, or both. Do not put filling on top of the last crepe.
    6. Make topping: Mix cream, brown sugar, and butter in a small pot over medium-high heat. Bring to boil, then let simmer for 10 minutes while stirring frequently. It will thicken and smell like caramel when it’s done and in my case, some of the butter separated from the mix. If this happens to you, just dump the extra butter off. Remove the topping from heat and mix in the vanilla, salt, and nuts.
    7. Pour topping over the cake and serve. We also found letting it sit in the fridge overnight improved the structural integrity, but it’s not a huge deal—it’s going to end up a delicious mess on your plate anyway.

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Abbreviations:
c = cup
med = medium
min = minutes
tbsp = tablespoon
tsp = teaspoon

Notes:

* – As mentioned in step 6, we had some issues with the butter separating from the topping. This could be due to overusing butter (we eyeballed 15 grams from a huge stick), or some other condition. Even if you use too much butter, you can just dump it off.

** – Deb’s original recipe called for walnuts, but we only had macadamia nuts foraged from a nearby orchard. These lent the cake a decidedly more tropical flavor.

Bondi Beach

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Surfers catch a wave at Bondi Beach

Intro: We’re stuck in Australia for two extra weeks, waiting for Russian visas. Here’s one of the things we did in the meantime!

The kilometer-long sandy stretch at Bondi is probably Australia’s most famous beach. If you’re visiting Sydney, people will tell you it’s a must-see. And with changing rooms, coin lockers, and showers, why just see it? If you visit in the summer, slip on a bathing suit and lounge around in the sand or go for a swim. The ~$4-6 USD round-trip price for transit makes Bondi an awesomely cheap way to pass time if you’re stuck in Sydney with a tight budget.

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A woman casts her flip-flops into the sand.

Bondi has two main types of water recreation: surfing and swimming. Surfing is king here, and most of the beach is open to people with surf- or boogieboards. This is the perfect place to watch surfers of all skills hang ten, from the dude just starting out (you can rent a board at the beach), to the guy that makes every wave caught look effortless. They’ll cluster on the south side of the beach, where a strong rip current dominates.

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The beach’s warning signs and rules. The “open borders” graffiti is probably a reference to Australia’s immigration policies.

The swimmers are a little less lucky; the lifeguards have to herd all non-boarders into one tiny strip of beach about 100 meters across. Marked by two signs, it encompasses swimmers, bodysurfers, and anyone splish-splashing around in the waves. And it gets crowded: hundreds of people cram into this “swim-safe” zone on busy days, making it nearly impossible to move without smacking someone. Lifeguards patrol the edges, herding anyone that strays outside the signposts back into the little box. It’s a bizarre ritual that as a Californian seems hilariously unnecessary; we do none of obsessive management at our beaches and everyone gets by just fine.

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Two guys watch the lifeguards patrolling the waters via boat.

Waves at the beach vary. Some days the waves splash ineffectually on the shore, hardly enough to move you as you stand waist-deep in the clear blue water. Other days the waves are a force to reckon with, dragging at you with every step and knocking down anyone caught unaware. Those are the good days, when a wave caught has enough power to propel you all the way to shore. If there wasn’t a human obstacle course in your way, that is.  Sometimes you bail early to avoid hitting someone. Sometimes you get dragged under and jostled against sand and human legs. And sometimes you just crash into people. You make sure they’re okay, you’re okay, and swim back out for another round.

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The north side of Bondi Beach. See that cluster of people in the water? That’s the swimming area.

You end up ravenous after hours in the water, and the boardwalk next to Bondi doesn’t disappoint. It’s filled with fancy restaurants and bars, interspersed with swim shops in case you’ve forgotten anything. Most were out of our price range as backpackers, but two we fell in love with and are worth mentioning. The first love is a tiny, no-frills Chinese restaurant called “Handmade Noodle and Dumpling Kitchen” at the corner of Campbell and Hall. The food (especially dumplings) is cheap, delicious, and pretty legit—it tastes like my dad’s cooking.

The second love is the San Churro. Okay, it’s not cheap and it’s mostly dessert, but I’ve loved San Churro since my first visit to one back in 2010. They don’t exist anywhere in the Western Hemisphere either, so I’ve had to wait seven years to have their delicious fresh churros and thick Spanish hot chocolate again. We stopped by here every time we visited Bondi, and there’s nothing like huddling over a cup of hot chocolate while still damp from a swim, breathing in the vapors mixed with the salty ocean breeze.

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A cup of thick Spanish hot chocolate and churros after a day at the beach.

Getting Russian Visas in Sydney

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We visit the Russian Embassy! Please don’t block us from the country for taking photos, we were just excited. 

When we started on this trip, we knew we’d have to stop somewhere to get visas for Russia and China. Both of these countries require visas for U.S. citizens, but both prohibit you from applying more than three/six months before you intend to enter the country, so we couldn’t apply for them before we left the U.S. Because neither of us speaks Russian and I’ve heard you can get a Chinese visa fairly easily in Hong Kong, we figured Australia would be our chance to get the Russian visa squared away—in a country that speaks English and has a Russian Embassy. For those of you looking to do the same, here’s the short of it: you can get a Russian visa with a U.S. passport from the Sydney Embassy. It can be a visa for any duration (we got 3-year, multi-entry visas). BUT they cannot do express processing, so it will take two weeks and you’re subject to the fees charged to U.S. citizens, not Australian citizens.

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The Russian Embassy in Australia, nestled in a green, tree-lined neighborhood in Sydney. 

A few days into our Sydney stay (after we had settled into an apartment we decided to rent weekly), we visited the Russian embassy to ask about the visa process. We arrived around 11:30, which was late in the day for them—they close at 12:30 pm. After taking a number in the front office, we sat down and passed the time in reading and work under the watchful eyes of a framed Putin photograph. 12:00, then 12:30 came and went. The number of people dwindled. Though closing hour had passed, the embassy employees stayed and worked through all of us. We came up near the end.

When our number was called, we walked up to the counter, showed our passports, and asked what we needed to do for visas. More specifically: how long would visa processing take? Which application form (U.S. or Australian) would we need to fill out? What length of visa could we apply for? How many copies did we need? The employee’s English was fairly good, but it took us a while to get all of it sorted out: We could get expensive express service and have it done in two days. The visa could be for any possible duration or number of entries. We should fill out the U.S. application (though it turns out they’re all the same form). One copy of the application each.

Given that info, I took my time in filling the forms out and we didn’t return until a few days before we were due to fly to Indonesia. We handed over the forms to the same guy we talked to last time. But he looked over the forms and shook his head. “We can not make express service for non-Australia passports here,” he told us. Oops!

He hadn’t realized last time that we don’t have Australian passports. There wasn’t much we could do about that, so we opted for the regular service. The employee handed us a receipt and told us to come back for our passports in two weeks. We went home, paid some fees to reschedule flights, and extended our apartment rental. Thank goodness we’re staying with some friends of a friend. They were awesomely accommodating about the situation.

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The Russian visa, at the end of all this work

Photos: Out and about in Sydney

We’re making final prerations to leave Sydney on Tuesday for Jakarta, so the blog post backlog is taking a back seat to travel planning. In the meantime, here are some photos of life in Sydney, where we’ve spent the past month:

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Stoytcho cleans mud from his shoes after a hiking trip.
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A miner bird steals thread to build a nest
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Rainbow thread exhibit by Megan Geckler at The Customs House in Circular Quay
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A sailboat in Sydney harbor
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Weekend visitors to Bondi Beach
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An “Oh my Lorde” donut from Doughnut Time. The company’s website boasts the following description for this creation: “Vanilla and passionfruit glaze, topped with meringue, freeze-dried strawberries, raspberry powder and party curls!”
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A man watches the sky
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The ceiling of the Central Park Mall
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Advertisement at a metro station
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The moon rises over the Newtown metro stop
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The alleyway entrance to Sappho’s Books and Wine Bar
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A street near the warehouses of Marrickville