Mushroom foraging with jim fuller

In a cool and misty grove in Macedon, not far from downtown Melbourne, Jim Fuller walks at a slow and steady pace. Every few feet, he stops and looks around. He notes the humidity in the air. He pauses to feel the texture of the soil under his feet.

Jim leaps over a fallen branch and zigzags around the woods in his tattered brown boots. He is a master of his trade. He has a feel for the land, but also an attuned sense of the pattern in which the seasons unfold. Finding wild mushrooms is a big game of hide and seek for Jim, he describes the joy he feels from solving the constantly shifting puzzle of clues: from rainfall and soil temperature to moisture and elevation.

Jim worked for years as a line cook and chef in Texas, and in 2006 he joined one of America’s largest specialty mushroom farms, Gourmet Mushrooms Inc. In 2010 he headed up the spawn laboratory at Australia’s biggest producer of cultivated mushrooms, Costa. Since then he founded The Great Australian Mushroom Co. and has been establishing a food culture around using native Australian mushrooms – an ambition that has proven seductive to the Melbourne restaurant scene.

More than 300 restaurants and food purveyors in Melbourne and surrounding areas, including The Press Club, Kettle Black and Gingerboy, purchase products from The Great Australian Mushroom Co. And a groundswell of interest in eating local, seasonal foods has spurred Jim to offer mushroom hunts and wild-edible cooking classes for home cooks (launching late 2015).

For Jim mushrooms offer so much potential. He almost vibrates with excitement when he talks about the many benefits of mushrooms, which is a lot, but the business of foraging and selling native mushrooms is another story. The challenges are both numerous and unnerving and Jim knows them all too well.

The regulations related to foraging on public land is poorly understood. Laws on removing fungus and wild plants from public areas change from state to state and between municipalities, and national parks, state forests and reserves are all regulated differently. Fines can also hurt. In Victoria, picking in regulated areas can set you back a little over $2500.

Chefs and consumers can be unwilling to move beyond familiar ingredients and continue buying stock-standard mushrooms from large supermarkets and suppliers.

And, of course, there’s the inconsistency of nature herself, who sometimes offers an endless bounty of produce and sometimes offers nothing at all.

Regardless of the hurdles, Jim has faith in his product and has plans to expand. He’s already set the wheels in motion for the development of a new mushroom farm in Melbourne’s outer suburbs. The farm will focus heavily on producing Australian native varieties of mushrooms, using sustainable and innovative practices. Jim also believes that in a perfect world, with the many influential people who pass through the doors of Australian restaurants, native mushrooms could be a voice for a broader environmental conservation.

“Once people understand the symbiotic relationship that exists between fungi and the trees of the forest – one needs the other to live – it will increase the public’s support for conservation.”

Traipsing through the forests foraging the bounty of nature has become a popular autumn expedition for food loving folk. Like we discovered, this happy, free activity can introduce new flavours into the kitchen, help get you out of the house on a weekend and into the great outdoors, and bring you closer to your food source.

It is important to note that there are some serious health issues and legal consequences that foragers must consider before hitting the forest floor. Mushroom picking should not be attempted by anyone unskilled in identifying wild species. If you are interested in foraging for mushrooms, join a guided tour or get in touch with Jim.


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by Kate Olsson

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