The quietness of the pine plantation is punctuated by a yell of excitement from four-year-old Oscar Vasilenko.
A slippery jack, for those unfamiliar, is an edible wild mushroom: with its dark brown cap camouflaged on the plantation floor, it would easily go unnoticed, and many of those who do spot it would likely steer well clear of eating it.
But for Oscar’s mum Ingrid Button, the unassuming fungus represents a host of culinary opportunities.
Ingrid is an avid food forager, finding sources of sustenance and nutrition in the wild and among the plants many would consider weeds.
She began foraging when she and her partner Michael moved to the Castlemaine area from Melbourne about five years ago.
As a new mother to Oscar and knowing few people she felt isolated, but walking a lot she saw plants around her new home that sparked her curiosity.
After a bit of digging, she discovered many of the plants growing free in the area were nutritious and had medicinal properties, and it was not long before she became “totally obsessed” with foraging.
Today, Ingrid’s obsession helps sustain her family, in more ways than one.
She makes meals, cakes and drinks from foraged food, using recipes and techniques she has largely discovered through trial and error, having no background in food or horticulture.
“You kind of just stumble along the way, figure out what does and doesn’t work,” she said.
Ingrid said a lot of old European recipes also used many of the ingredients she found through foraging, and older people had proved to be a source of information.
Once, many of these were commonplace food plants, she said.
“I think there’s a lot of lost knowledge out there,” she said.
Ingrid and Michael also cultivate certain plants commonly considered weeds at their “mini homestead”.
“We came from the city, everything was pre-packaged, and we moved out here, and now I make my own bread, and figured out you could make yoghurt from the last few spoonfuls in the yoghurt tub,” she said.
Within about three years, she said, the family had cut their food bill by a whopping 50 per cent.
Ingrid has also turned her passion into a business called Free Food Foragers, running popular workshops on foraging twice a week.
Topics range from mushroom identification and cooking to basic bushcraft survival skills and even seaweed foraging.
“It’s possibly the best job in the world,” she said.
The business, she said, began as a bit of a dare when Michael grew tired of her talking about it “all the time”.
“I went ‘Well, you know what? I reckon people will pay me to talk about this’,” she said.
Ingrid said there was growing interest in foraging in Australia, with an already “absolutely massive” movement in the United Kingdom and Europe.
“Over the past three years, people have become really interested in their food journey,” Ingrid said.
“You know, ‘Where exactly is my food coming from, what pesticides are being used on it, how damaging is that to the environment?’”
Picking up the benefits
Foraging had huge benefits, she said, which had captured the interest of more people.
Ingrid lists them: no food miles, being in nature, getting exercise, spending time with other people, connecting to the community, the fun children find in it, organic, fresh, good nutrition, and of course, it’s free.
The only con, she said, was that it did take a little more time and effort than a visit to the supermarket.
There was a label of fear attached to foraging, Ingrid said, but assured that many of these plants were ones our ancestors ate.
For those starting out, she recommends going out with someone who knows what they are doing, participate in a workshop, or join a local foraging group.
The library was a great resource, she said; Ingrid also did a lot of her research online.
She said foragers should also stick to the adage “When in doubt, throw it out” if there was any uncertainty about the ID of a particular plant or fungus.
Locally, there are many weeds that are edible: stinging nettle, plantain and dandelion are among the most common.
While many would likely turn their nose up at stinging nettle, Ingrid said its flavour was “nutty and delicious”, and it was highly nutritious – and, once cooked, lost its sting.
When foraging, Ingrid said, people should use common courtesy: do not trespass, and ask if you would like to pick fruit overhanging fences when ‘gleaning’, or urban foraging.
Generally foragers should also take only what they need and ensure a plant can recover for other people to use.
But in her workshops Ingrid teaches about invasive weeds, so sustainability of these plants is not such an issue.
Ingrid’s life in Chewton, where she spends her time sourcing food for her family and teaching others how to do the same, represents a vast difference from the one she led in Melbourne, where she worked as a business administration trainer.
But it’s one she “wouldn’t change for the world”, saying she is lucky to have a partner who supports their lifestyle.
Oscar goes out with her and learnt how to forage: Ingrid said he could go out and come back with ingredients for a meal, all at the tender age of four.
“For me it’s about getting back into that natural cycle I think we should all be living in,” Ingrid said.
“We only eat what’s in season at the time… You live with what is in season, rather than just going to the supermarket and buying everything out of that convenience.
“There’s that thrill of the hunt as well.”
Ingrid said she had discovered a happy life balance.
“There I was in a suit, and I was travelling away, and I was just miserable,” she said of her old life.
“And I went, ‘This is not how life is meant to be’.
“I’m meant to be at home with my family.”
Find more details on Free Food Foragers at freefoodforagers.wordpress.com or facebook.com/freefoodforagers.