Our eyes are focused hard on the ground as Diego Bonetto steps carefully through the underbrush of a dense pine forest just outside Oberon in the Blue Mountains, 2.5 hours from Sydney. Behind him a dozen spectators follow, including a contingent of chefs from a new Italian restaurant in Petersham, each clumsily struggling to remain upright as they maneuver the same uneven terrain our guide seems to float over.
“This is the kind of knowledge you only learn by doing,” Bonetto says, crouching beside a small, raised plateau of pine needles while a chattering of cockatoos takes flight overhead. “Your grandmother would not have needed a funny guy with a funny accent to show her how to find these. She would have known.”
Where most of us see only bush detritus, Bonetto sees a bounty of edible treasure. He carefully lifts away the blanket of damp mulch and reveals a cluster of vibrant orange pine mushrooms.
Our eyes now attuned, we suddenly see mushrooms everywhere. Within half an hour, each of us is hauling a basket filled with mushrooms that fetch $60 per kilo at Sydney’s farmers markets.
Diego Bonetto – aka “the Weedy One” – is Sydney’s king of foraging. His regular tours guide participants through the hidden-in-plain-sight ingredients scattered throughout varied urban landscapes, from the seaweeds and oceanic succulents of Clovelly, to the wild olives, amaranth and dandelions of Marrickville. (Bonetto told us how and where to spot some of these plants back in 2013.)
“I’m just a storyteller; nothing I’m telling you is new or mine,” says Bonetto, who casually sprinkles his speech with references to authors Bruce Pascoe and George Monbiot, and the philosopher Michel Foucault. “These are old stories that I’m just retelling. What I’m showing you today is already yours; you’ve just forgotten it.”
Born into a pastoral life in northern Italy, Bonetto moved to Australia in the ’90s, at age 24, to escape his dairy-farm destiny. While working in orchards and garden centers in Sydney, he discovered a widespread hunger for information on edible weeds and other found food – the kind of information that had been ingrained in him from an early age.
“I started these tours because people wanted them,” he says. “People are desperate to get all this lost knowledge back.”
Among Bonetto’s disciples include a host of chefs and bartenders, representing ingredient-forward establishments such as Archie Rose, PS40, Lumi Bar & Dining, Paperbark, Cornersmith, Three Blue Ducks and Kitchen by Mike, among many others.
A member of the tour approaches Bonetto with a single mushroom, distinct from the pine mushrooms we’ve been harvesting, to ask about its edibility. Our guide’s eyes widen and he quickly calls on every participant to gather around. This, he tells us, is the elusive and appropriately named slippery jack – another of the pine forest’s autumn offerings.
The professional forager– who also created a now-discontinued interactive wild food map, tracking over 300,000 instances of edible or medicinal plants worldwide – believes chefs are driven to forage for the same reason they’re attracted to native ingredients, local produce and nose-to-tail cooking.
“It’s all the same desire to change how we interact with our resources,” he says. “It’s about bringing forward the narratives of not only the flavours of the food, but what the food means.
“When you eat foraged food, you engage with minerals and vitamins that are specific to the place where you found it. Your body is interacting with biological information that cannot be translated into words.”
Not only does foraging provide free food, and an interesting narrative for both chefs and diners, Bonetto believes it “triggers hard-coded genetic memories that hint at the survival skills utilised by our ancestors”.
“Doing this activates something deep inside you that hints at self-sustainability,” he says, pressing his worn Opinel knife back into its timber handle and tossing a few freshly foraged handfuls of sliced mushrooms into a frying pan set over a small camping stove. “Basically, being able to find food in the forest activates the wild animal part of you. It affects you on a physical level as well as an emotional one.”
Diego Bonetto’s foraging workshops on edible weeds, wild mushrooms and other found foods are held several times a month and start at $25 per person. Book here.
Once you’ve learned how find mushrooms, learn how to cook them. According to a Chef Turned Mushroom Scientist, We’ve Been Cooking Mushrooms Wrong All This Time.