Richard Ford forages mushrooms for a living. This means that three months of the year, for eight or nine hours a day, he can be found in pine plantations, atop barren hills and at the bottom of valleys gathering edible fungi.
His pickings satiate not only his own personal appetite for his favoured Morel mushroom — a “weird little thing” which he endeavours to enjoy daily — but also keep the city’s most respected chefs and their patrons satisfied when it comes to wild mushroom cravings. To Ford, it’s a day job and not a particularly interesting one at that.
“I’ve done this for twenty five years and no one has ever shown any interest before. I don’t know how to glorify what I do”, he says, apologetically but unnecessarily prefacing our discussion.
What Ford doesn’t realise is that for most people mushrooms exist exclusively in fluorescently lit supermarket aisles, sautéed next to scrambled eggs on a Sunday morning or in the land of once upon a time, with the folklore of childhood bedtime stories. The unfathomable multitude of mushroom varieties, the often cruel weather dependence of their season and just where they can be found remains an utter mystery, as removed from urban life as goblins, fairies and elves.
While Ford’s feet are planted firmly on terra firma, the story behind how he came to be one of just a handle of foragers supplying to Melbourne’s restaurant scene seems somehow magical, straight from a far off fairy tale – a throwaway conversation overheard in the kitchen where he worked was the initial catalyst for an unlikely career change.
“I was working in a kitchen when I eavesdropped on a few chefs talking about these mushrooms called Morels that you could supposedly make your fortune picking. One day I met someone who knew where they grew so I went with him for a day trip. When I was a kid in England I had a family friend who used to take me picking for Slippery Jacks, so I recognised them and got to picking them too. I’ve been doing it since”, he recalls.
Where Ford thinks his story is as simple as that, he skipped the important parts, like how he got his first clients by literally blindly calling restaurants from the Age Good Food Guide, such as Circa, The Prince and Middle Park Hotel, or that he self-taught himself which mushrooms are edible.
“I learnt the 20 edible varieties by getting about 30 books and just poring over them. If you eat the wrong kind of mushroom you get very sick and die, so that is a massive incentive to get it right! The chefs I supply to trust me implicitly and I don’t take that lightly”, says Ford.
Where growing interest from chefs and consumers has meant more readily available information on mushroom varieties, it takes more than a guided day tour to confidently tell an edible Pine Mushroom or delectably titled Plums and Custard variety from a potentially fatal sibling.
Beyond the importance of safety, Ford is driven by another duty of care – one he owes the environment that gives him his livelihood. By supplying wild, hand picked mushrooms to even a small stable of clients, Ford offers an alternative to the kind of veggies that are cultivated in artificially run sheds and produce a vast amount of waste.
“When you pick a mushroom from the forest, nothing is hurt. It’s an astoundingly low impact way of getting food from a system that carries on regardless of whether it is foraged. As far as the earth goes, I do what I do as a small attempt to make amends and improve the difficult environmental situation in which we all find ourselves,” explains Ford.
In a food climate that too often favours speed and convenience to the detriment of any connection with or understanding of what we eat, Ford and his long, arduous days spent in the forest are a welcome exception. When it comes to wild mushrooms, it seems that magic exists after all and it looks just like the toadstools found in fairy tales.
Images from top to bottom: assorted mushrooms, Australian CEP Mushroom, egg and custard mushroom, pine mushroom, slippery jack mushroom