Shuttling down the M5 at an ungodly hour on a Saturday morning doesn’t make for the kind of relaxing start to the weekend that most long for. But for the giddy promise of spending half a day hunting for chestnuts and mushrooms, it seems like a fair trade-off. The destination is Exeter, to meet Nick Padol and Jill Dyson of FoodPath, a small operation dedicated to exploring the produce and culinary community of the Southern Highlands. [fold]
“I grew up on a farm so I understand the lifestyle,” says Dyson. “My partner Nick and I love food and fresh local food and we like to support and promote local food growers…everyone benefits.”
The FoodPath tours are genuine food adventures, which examine the particulars of the origins of food and allow you to relish the dining side of it too. When the seasons change, so to do the possibilities. One month might bring a pickling workshop, a family farm tour (in which a child found a truffle last weekend) or visiting local farms. The next weekend might bring market tour of Bowral, a cooking class and a three-course lunch. The options seem endless in the Highlands, especially when you’re tapped into Padol and Dyson’s local network and knowledge.
This particular Saturday starts at Exeter General Store: a post-office, bookshop and an excellent cafe serving up fantastic breakfasts (think fluffy blueberry pancakes and wonderfully sweet corn fritters). For this reason, it’s vital that you get to Exeter early and fight the temptation to stop at a regrettable grease trap along the way.
Dyson greets the day’s group at the front of the General Store and proves to be a woman so lovely and passionate about food that you instantly know you’re in the right hands. Shortly, we’re following the FoodPath car to Pinehaven Stud Chestnut Farm, where we’re handed a bucket and pair of gloves lacquered at the palm and fingertips.
Nipping into the final week of chestnut season is a blessing and a curse. If the wombats haven’t gotten to the chestnuts first, then the human visitors have. Luckily, this year’s season has been a generous one, so the ground is still littered with the hedgehog-like husks – a prickly and painful coat of spikes. So that’s what the gloves are for.
The best way to avoid reciting every swear word known to man is to simply crack the husks with your shoes (a pair of good leather boots wouldn’t go astray here). Loose chestnuts are scattered in the shade of the grove, most dried out and soft. The good ones are hard and unyielding, and preferably come from an enclosed husk which prevents them from softening in the sun. At first it seems hard to identify the good from the bad, but soon enough our bright blue buckets begin to fill. Still, even with the gloves, it’s hard to avoid a few spikes.
“You’ve only really picked chestnuts if you’ve got spikes in your fingers,” we’re told as the chestnuts are weighed. We buy our chestnuts (you pay at a wholesale rate) and are following the FoodPath car again.
Mushroom foraging is a rare tour and not one to be expected. Mushrooms can be rather noxious things, so apart from these tours functioning at the whims of seasonality and availability, mushroom foraging is strictly limited in order to ensure nothing goes wrong.
We pull over to a stretch of bush on the side of the road and Dyson swiftly swoops in on a cluster of mushrooms, slices one from the ground with the curved blade of her mushroom knife, and begins explaining how to identify the safe varieties in the area.
At first terrified of touching anything for fear of keeling right then and there, it does become easier to follow suit when you see others picking mushrooms with abandon. Soon enough Dyson finds the very pretty, but very poisonous, fly agaric. Everyone stands back with noted reverence. With their white stalks, red cap and white spots they’re the kind of toadstool that you imagine a wood fairy perched atop of. But of course, their charms are not without consequences.
Saffron milk caps and slippery jack mushrooms are perhaps less glamorous, but they are the decidedly more edible. Dotted and clumped in the shade and undergrowth, astoundingly, there are enough in this small section of bush to fill up every bucket and then some, so we head back down the dirt road and say our goodbyes. It’s just past midday but we’ve accomplished more than we would have on a regular Saturday in Sydney. It is a hugely satisfying feeling.
The wonder of these FoodPath tours is in actively forging the connection between the origins of your food and your dinner plate. “We like to educate people about where their food comes from and enjoy seeing their response,” says Dyson. “We take them places where they see ethical farming practices and where people are passionate about what they are doing.”
Admittedly, half the excitement is in using your haul to put together a meal that same night. But taking food straight from the ground is definitely something to appreciate. There’s something gratifying in its simplicity: no middlemen and no packaging.