Historically speaking, pine rings are a special mushroom. Known internationally as saffron milk caps or red pine mushrooms, these gilled fungi were depicted in a fresco found in the ancient Roman ruins of Herculaneum – making them one of the oldest recorded edible mushrooms in the world. They also form part of the social fabric in Eastern Europe and beyond, where foraging for these is a way of life. Each year many thousands of Latvians, Poles and Russians head out into the wilderness to find these orange treasures, with the intent of preserving them through lacto-fermentation in the age-old manner of using salt to draw out their juices. I prefer pickling them and you can find that recipe by clicking here.
Closer to home pine rings generally begin making their appearance well into autumn, after a few cold fronts have brought sufficient rain. In pine forests is where they will be found, often growing in numbers. These mushrooms are mycorrhizal in nature, sharing symbiotic relationships with the introduced pine trees which they grow under. Provided there has been enough moisture, pine rings will continue to grow from autumn throughout winter. There is only one other mushroom that could be mistaken for a Pine Ring, and that is the toxic Copper Trumpet or Jack-o’-Lantern (pictured below for reference):
Pine Rings have several tell-tale characteristics to make identification of these mushrooms a piece of cake.
- They always have textured stems and bright orange gills (see below).
- They have little blue mushrooms growing underneath the larger specimens. They may look like different mushrooms but in actual fact these are tiny, bruised pine rings which never got the chance to grow.
- Pine rings have a hollow stem when sliced open.
- Pine rings have circular “rings” on the top of the cap.
- An orange, carrot-like juice is exuded from them when cut and handled.
- They always grow under and around pine trees.
I was never the biggest fan of eating pine rings until I started learning the lore of the Eastern Europeans. Previously I had tried frying them up with garlic, even adding a bit of white wine… treating them like they were common-or-garden portobello mushrooms. Even in my own pastas and risottos I found them average at best, but then again I am no trained chef who could unleash their potential. These methods did them no justice at all and I couldn’t get what the fuss was about, why so many people from Austria to Australia head out each year to harvest this somewhat acidic and crunchy mushroom. Even the Latin name of this mushroom implied I was missing out on something – Lactarius deliciosus (the latter name meaning ‘tasty’). So I went straight to the source and began chatting to a few Polish and Latvian foragers whom I encountered over time in Newlands forest. They taught me to to only use the caps and remove the stems as they are too woody and tasteless (however, the Urban Hunter Gatherer makes a great stock with them). Pickling or fermenting these really makes them come to life I find… their natural crunch factor is amplified with the tangy bite of vinegar and they would make a great addition to a charcuterie board. Now in their pickled state they are wonderful and can be added to meat and vegetables dishes and so on.
Update: Having recently eaten at Chalk & Cork, chef Chris Papayannes did a really impressive pea risotto with lightly-fried pine rings and truffle oil. I’m hooked!