Foraging could definitely be the next food craze if the crowd that turned up for Oberon's first Field to Forest Festival was anything to go by.
The autumn festival coincides with the short season when a bounty of delicious wild Saffron Milk Caps and Slippery Jacks mushrooms pop up under the pine needles of the 40,000 hectares of state-owned radiata pine forests that ring the town.
While the inaugural festival in 2019 was a hit, last year's April event had to be cancelled. However, this month's festival in April is taking place in small groups in the great outdoors and ticks every COVID-safe box.
The rich soils of Oberon, 190 kilometres west of Sydney and an hour's drive from the Blue Mountains, harbour quite a few delicacies. Apart from wild mushrooms, the area is well-known for the black truffle, although that expensive fellow fungi isn't ready for harvest until the winter months.
As a city slicker, I had a lot to learn about foraging, although I did heed instructions and pack a pair of gumboots, a wicker basket and a good knife.
For starters, I wasn't aware you could legally drive into the woods and gather mushrooms at your leisure and for free. But mushroom maestro Diego Bonetto, who leads keen foragers into the forests and cooks the mushrooms, laced with oil and garlic right on the spot, put me straight.
While our Italian and Polish settlers have been harvesting wild mushrooms for more than a century, it was only about a decade ago that devoted foodies realised there was plenty of good tucker to be had just after the first autumn rains. And as pine mushrooms sell for $40 a kilo in some speciality greengrocers, it hasn't taken folks long to cotton onto the craze.
Diego, a raconteur and a man who has never met a weed he didn't think could be edible, is back in Oberon. But as he's something of a legend in the foraging fraternity, his mushrooming expeditions sell out fast.
Fortunately several small-group 4WD tours and a tag-along-tour, for 4WD car owners, are on offer throughout April where participants are taken to good gathering spots and told what mushrooms they can pick and what types of fungi can be toxic.
Top of the no-no list are the Amanita Muscaria, or fly agaric, a toadstool with a red cap and white dots. This beautiful prolific little specimen is the mushroom of storybook fairy tales. It's seriously cute but it can make you ill. I came across plenty of these but also found dozens of Saffron Milk Caps which have an orangey red top of concentric circles and an underside of fine gills or ridges radiating from the stalk. I also spotted Slippery Jacks, with their brownish tops and a spongy lemon underside.
Oberon's festival will also showcase the district's boutique winemakers and emerging brewers and distillers on the Wine, Beer and Spirit Trail, a day-long small group coach tour to run on the last three Saturdays in April.
Casey's Vineyard, owned by John and Raelene Casey, was the first to open in the region when the beef cattle farming couple planted Chardonnay, Shiraz and Pinot Noir vines in 1995. At an altitude of 1000 metres, their vineyard and rustic cellar door have panoramic views over Tarana, a village just south of Oberon. Other producers on the trail are Renzaglia Wines and Bellbrook Friends Wines in the nearby hamlets of O'Connell and Essington, along with two new brewers and a gin-maker.
Another Oberon producer, Col Roberts, had to cancel his popular truffle hunts when COVID hit. However this year he's offering private hunts where the pungent black perigord truffle will be sniffed out by his black Labrador, Floyd, for small groups booking accommodation at his Lowes Mount Truffiere.
Although one of six local truffle farmers, Col is the largest in the area and the only one who allows the public to hunt for this highly-prized fungi.
Among the area's other boutique producers are Ross and Sally Smith, owners of The Walnut Grove, a 1100-tree orchard producing three varieties of the nut. Ross, a Sydney cancer surgeon, saw the health benefits of the walnut's natural omega-3 fatty acids and decided to buy the established farm a decade ago.
Today the couple produce in-shell nuts, kernels and walnut oil.
Although the Field to Forest Festival is short, Oberon's wine and produce is available year round in local shops, farmers' markets and cellar doors.
And for those who miss out on a forager tour, pine mushrooms can be gathered by anyone who wanders into the forest - just as long as they know what to pick - and what to leave in the ground.
Oberon is 180 kilometres west of Sydney - a 2.5-3 hour drive.
Jenolan Cabins, fully self-contained with accommodation for six people, are 20 kilometres from Oberon and have views over the Blue Mountains National Park. From $145 per double per night on weekdays. See jenolancabins.com.au
EAT & DRINK
The Field to Forest Festival takes place with various events throughout April and early May.
Long Arm Farm Cafe is open for breakfast and lunch. Sells truffled products, walnuts and gourmet fare. See facebook.com/thelongarmfarm
For the Wine, Beer and Spirit Trail see eventbrite.com.au
Lowes Mount Truffles offers accommodation and private truffle hunts in winter. See lowesmounttruffles.wordpress.com
Walnut Grove is open by appointment. See thewalnutgrove.com.au
Caroline Gladstone travelled as a guest of Oberon Council and Central NSW Tourism.