Saffron Milk Cap (Lactarius deliciosus)
Foraging Saffron Milk Caps in Southeastern Australia
They are under pine trees. The mushroom is the fruiting body of a fungal network (mycelium) that is symbiotically a part of the pine tree’s root system (a mycorrhizal association) – so they aren’t just there for some shade, it is the only place they can live.
They are orange with a woody pattern of darker and lighter concentric circles on top (see pictures) and have orange gills. Stipes (stems) often have a pattern of discs on them. Don’t take anything less than 5cm until you have picked a lot and have learned to identify them with instant certainty – there are some other small orange mushrooms out there. They NEVER have white stems or white gills – which is really important because some bad poisonous ones do.
When cut, they bleed a reddish orange latex. The stipe (stem) is smooth (no ring) and often hollow, especially on older ones. Bruised areas take on a greenish stain.
When young, the cap is convex with a depressed centre and inrolled edge (curled down over the gills), then opening out to become convex to vase-shaped when fully mature.
The most likely misidentification, in my experience, is with some fly agarics (Amanita muscaria) – which are poisonous. While these are well known as being often luridly red, convex capped and covered in white spots, some big old ones can tend to a yellowish that might seem something like orange and they can open up into a concave cap with few or no obvious spots. And they grow in the same pine forests. So, don’t check off just some of the identifiers above, make sure you get them all, especially that they don’t have white stems or gills.
Where: The bigger the pine forest the better – so you can cover more ground which hopefully someone else hasn’t covered before you. Also, the older the trees the better – don’t even bother searching among saplings. Target areas where moisture might be concentrated – along drainage lines, or even where the roadside channel drains are occasionally directed out into the forest. Some people find more success on forest edges and recently disturbed areas, but if there is much foraging pressure around, that could well be picked over and rewards may lie in wait for those happy to walk deeper. While some will be found standing proudly up, waiting to be taken, keep an eye out for the sneaky ones that can be quite sizeable but still mostly hidden under a mat of pine needles.
Oberon State Forest, NSW Belanglo State Forest, NSW Wingello State Forest, NSW
Eating: Saffrons are great fresh, sliced and pan-fried in oil or butter (if people ardently recommend one and disdain the other, simply take it as a comment on whether they are from a southern or northern European tradition). They can and should be cleaned. Some people have a brush with them in the forest and do a lot of careful cleaning there. But in the kitchen, there is nothing wrong with doing it under the tap. Personally (and depending on the shape), I often shave off the gills with a very sharp knife so that I can give them a good rinse and just work with thick mushroom meat. Eat your biggest ones first, working back to the younger ones with an inrolled edge protecting the gills – these will keep in the fridge for a good few days. A handy warning: when you eat a decent serve, it will turn your wee a bit reddish, just so you know beforehand and don’t think that you are dying.
For your first time foraging for mushrooms I highly recommend going with someone that knows what they are doing; some mushrooms are poisonous and can kill you. The old adage ‘If in doubt go without’ absolutely applies.
Preserving: If you have a big haul and want to preserve them, there are four options:
Dice or slice, lightly sauté, cool, bag and freeze.
Clean really well, shave off gills, vacuum seal and freeze whole and raw. Use flatter ones so that you get fewer air spaces.
Pickle them. Use smaller harder ones. It should be a vinegar pickle. Russians sometimes do a shorter fermented pickle and eat it young, but if Sandor Katz (fermenting guru) is uncertain about fermented fungi pickles, then who am I to suggest otherwise).
Dehydrate if you must. While slippery jacks are improved by it, saffrons are not.
Or you could share them while they are fresh. Although be sure the recipient actually wants them – some people simply don’t like eating lurid orange wild fungi. Weirdos. They deserve cream of mushroom soup from a packet and to be never invited around again.
When: Mostly in autumn and a few days after rain is best. If hard frosts hold off, there can also be some into early winter. But late autumn remains the best time and within that period it is worth waiting until after some properly big rainfall.
How: Cut them from the ground with as much stipe (stem) as you can – it can help with arranging them. Handle with care from the first instance of touching them until they are in the kitchen; they bruise easily.