A trip to Stewart Island first planted the spores of Liv Sisson’s passion – now the Christchurch-based writer/forager/foodie with a penchant for colourfully painted nails is sharing her love of the (not so) humble mushroom with the world via a fun new book about fungi.
Interview Josie Steenhart | Words Liv Sisson | Photos Paula Vigus
Your first “real” encounter with fungi was on Stewart Island in 2015 – tell us a bit about that?
I was studying at Otago on exchange for a semester. It was my first time in Aotearoa New Zealand. So everything about this place I now call home was completely novel to me. Especially the ngahere (forest).
I went down to Rakiura Stewart Island to do a tramp and I was transfixed by all the colourful lichen. Even in the dead of winter there were lime greens, bubblegum pinks, yellows, oranges, eggshell blues. They enchanted me. Lichen isn’t one thing, it’s a fungus and algae living together in symbiosis. Together they create unbelievable colours, textures and forms.
And how did your obsession grow from there?
I love to document things so I started photographing and drawing lichen and other fungi. And then googling them. I just kept looking and researching. And repeating that process over and over again.
I fell in love with looking for these curious and charismatic organisms. It’s just so fun. It brings me a childlike joy to go out in the bush and look for the tiny wonders there, rather than just rushing past.
Looking for fungi allows me to step back into the eyes-wide-open, full perception mode I was in on Rakiura – when the wonders of our native ngahere were still completely new and mysterious to me.
Do you have a favourite fungi?
It’s stinkhorn season. They are full of personality. They have wild forms. Some look like red octopi emerging from below. Others are phallic.
Tūtae kēhua can be found across the Ōtautahi CBD at the moment. Visually it looks like the outline of a soccer ball – you’ll get what I mean when you spot it. These amaze me. They are completely otherworldly.
You currently live in Christchurch, what brought you here and how is the local fungi scene?
I got great value out of that semester at Otago – a funguy – my Uni Flats neighbour eventually became my partner. Duncan. He’s the best. We moved to Christchurch together after reconnecting several
The local fungi scene here is amazing. We have porcini in Hagley Park. Truffle farms in North Canterbury. And many amazing local chefs who serve up amazing fungi-focused dishes year-round.
Three top pointers for fungi foraging in the South Island?
It’s actually always fungi season – we even have great edible fungi in winter here. Autumn gets all the glory though because that’s when porcini pop up.
So I suppose the first tip is: go always. And the second would be: go slow. Rushing will usually leave you disappointed. And being in a hurry is when people get hasty.
Which leads me to the most important pointer, which is: always get a positive identification before consuming. I explain how to do this in my book. It’s a bit nuanced but is all about going on your own learning journey, figuring out what to look for when trying to identify your finds, and building your own foraging practice.
How did the book come about?
My friend Marty Jones is very creative and first gave me the notion that I could write a book. That was at the beginning of 2020. I lost touch with the idea during Covid but I kept looking and researching. And working on my writing.
When Fantastic Fungi came out on Netflix I saw the public interest skyrocket in the topic. And while the shelves at my local library had some great New Zealand fungi field guides, I wanted more. Something with stories and big photos and the foraging side of things too.
So, I put together a pitch. And with the help of so, so many, the book became real.
What’s next for you?
I just got a new job in tech and I’m still working on my writing. Mostly I’m writing about food
for The Spinoff.
I’m interested in our food system and how we might fix it. I’m also curious about the TV world.
And t-shirts. I’ve got some fungi tours coming up and a few trips around the motu planned to share
I’m excited. And so grateful to my Ōtautahi community who have really wrapped around me and the book. I couldn’t have done it without them.
The fungi of Aotearoa are fascinating, freaky and fantastical. We have a powdery white fungus that hunts bugs. A basket-shaped species that can move around. A lichen named after Jacinda Ardern. And a blue mushroom on our $50 note. We have others that glow in the dark, and a few that can kill you, liquefy
your liver or send you to outer space. And these are just the ones we know about.
Like our flora and fauna, the fungi of Aotearoa have evolved in isolation. They feature brilliant hues, alien textures and unique personalities that often can’t be found anywhere else.
I left Rakiura with an eye for lichen, and from that trip forward I saw them literally everywhere I went. Lichen covers 7 percent of the Earth’s surface; it even grows on my 1995 Isuzu Bighorn.
When I left Aotearoa and returned to my university in Virginia, USA, lichen still held my attention. I sketched them in my art classes and collected tiny samples during my geology field work. I borrowed an electron microscope to look at them as closely as possible.
One day, while walking down the street I grew up on – a route I’d taken hundreds of times – I got struck by lichening again. This time, what I noticed was Amanita muscaria, the classic red and white toadstool. How, I thought, could something so wild, so whimsical, so strange, exist in real life? And could it have been there all along?
In that instant, my childhood home – the most familiar place in my world – became mysterious;
an unexplored dimension was suddenly on my doorstep.
I returned to this same spot almost daily. I got to know red, orange, brown, yellow, green, blue and
purple fungi. All were fascinating.
How had I spent 20 years not noticing these characters? In the midst of becoming ‘bemushroomed’, I met a Kiwi, fell in love, returned to Aotearoa and kept falling head-first into my fascination with fungi.
Mycologists (fungi scientists) aren’t in agreement on how many fungi species are out there. Guesses range from two to five million, but as one Kiwi mycologist put it to me, “Our best estimate is…
a shit tonne.”
Some species are mushrooms, but the majority aren’t; they’re lichens, moulds and mildews, and most, like yeasts, are microscopic. At this very moment fungi are in you, on you, floating by on the breeze, and living in the soil beneath your feet.
Fungi are a requirement of life. Without fungi, Speight’s would be just water and sugar. We wouldn’t be able to eat plants. Marmite wouldn’t exist. And neither would modern medicine. I can’t think of a topic that fungi doesn’t somehow sponsor.
On this journey, fungi have become my teachers. They have filled my days with colour and wonder.
They dot the landscape of my memory, and even pop up in my dreams. New information is constantly emerging about our fungi: we’re only just beginning to understand these magnificent organisms. As I’ve gotten to know them, I’ve foraged for fungi themselves, but for their stories and teachings, too.
Skipped straight to this bit? That’s understandable. Wild mushrooms are some of the most romantic and special ingredients out there. Fungi can make delicious and nutritious food. I’ve loved learning how to forage for fungi and remember lots of my finds individually. From field mushrooms to tawaka, there are more than a few tasty species to find out there.
Of course, fungi foraging is not a new practice. Māori culinary tradition includes fungi as food (and medicine) alongside the other bounties the native bush offers. Over a dozen fungi species have been recorded as being used in Aotearoa as food resources.
Going slow while foraging fungi is always key. Double-check you’re allowed to forage in the area where you’re looking. Investigate if the area might be sprayed. Take your time to get a positive ID. And make sure you forage respectfully, reciprocally and safely.
In my experience, foraging fungi is a game of inches. It’s unlikely that you’ll find multiple new-to-you edible species that you can positively identify on just one walk. I think of it like making good friends. It’s hard to add a bunch to your inner circle all at once. And if you hurry, you could end up with some bad/toxic ones in the lot.
I’ve only ever been able to add one species at a time to the group I ‘know’. And sometimes these additions are spaced out by months or even entire seasons.
Experimenting with foraged fungi in the kitchen is a whole other adventure. I’m still learning about fungi to forage, and how to use them. It’s a foodie journey without end, really.
Fungi as food
The world is your oyster mushroom. That’s how one top New Zealand chef described the world of edible fungi to me.
Heaps of us have unhappy memories of slimy shrooms being served up to us as children. Even me. Fungi, though, make fantastic and often surprising food.
Here are some of the most interesting fungi foods I’ve come across in Aotearoa. Slippery jack mushroom burgers, grilled over charcoal, with a dash of pine oil, served over a bed of creamy mushroom-stock polenta. Mushroom mince dumplings. A porcini mushroom chocolate mousse Yule log.
Those first two dishes come from Max Gordy, and the third from Vicki Young – both are top Wellington chefs. When we think outside of the ‘mushrooms on toast’ box, we find that fungi offer us untapped foodie potential.
People who don’t like mushrooms just might not have tried the right one yet. There’s such a wide scope out there, a huge amount of diversity, and they’re good for you too. To cook with mushrooms at home and make them sing, follow these tips gathered from some of the best chefs and fungi fans around Aotearoa.
Growing your own
The journey of finding, identifying and safely foraging edible fungi is fun, but it isn’t fast. It takes
a while to build up your knowledge and skill. In the meantime, though, you can grow your own
Little mushroom farms doing just that can be found up and down Aotearoa. When I first moved to Ōtautahi Christchurch, I didn’t really know anyone. So when the owners of a small mushroom farm offered to show me their operation, I went.
Taylor and Susan, who are now my friends, started SporeShift Mushrooms to grow fungi food in a way that’s good for people and the planet. They taught me that growing mushrooms can be super-sustainable. You can grow indoors in a controlled environment with little waste, and you can use vertical space, too, which massively increases output per hectare.
Agricultural and forestry waste products can be used as the growing substrate, and what remains after the mushroom harvest can be turned into nutritious garden compost.
Almost anyone can get into mushroom-growing. Starting out with a mushroom grow block is probably the way to go – these can be purchased online from SporeShift and other producers around the country. If you go well with those and really want to go further, you can make your own grow blocks. This is a big jump up, though – you’ll need a flow hood, a sterile environment and lab equipment.
If you’re not keen to turn your garage into a lab, try co-planting in the garden. Studies have shown that wine cap mushrooms, for example, can boost corn’s ability to produce delicious ears. These mushrooms are prolific decomposers, they digest organic matter in the soil, and this adds nutrients to the system that the hungry corn eagerly convert into sweet kernels.
To start companion planting with fungi, add woodchips and mushroom spawn to your soil. This can be purchased online. Wine caps, and other tasty species like the phoenix oyster mushroom, can be grown this way.
Edited extract from Fungi of Aotearoa: A Curious Forager’s Field Guide by Liv Sisson, photography by Paula Vigus. Published by Penguin Books, RRP$45.