What started as a part-time fungus-foraging operation by chefs, for chefs, has grown into a boutique, sustainable and regenerative fresh produce company, writes Richard Cornish.

What is it?
Force of Nature Food Co is based around a regenerative market garden delivering seasonal produce to restaurants. The season starts in spring with the broad bean harvest, then moves on to garlic. Over summer, delicate zucchini flowers are harvested, followed by the bounty of over 30 different varieties of Heirloom tomatoes. As autumn approaches, the pumpkins ripen. As the growing season ends, broad bean seeds and garlic bulbs are planted for the following season. Then, the autumn rains fall on the still-warm soil and edible fungi emerge from the earth in the forests around the state. After that, it’s time for the winter foraging season to begin. Slippery jacks, field mushrooms, pine mushrooms – also known as saffron milk caps – and morels are all carefully identified and harvested in a sustainable manner leaving older mushrooms to drop their spores and reproduce.

Who’s producing it?
Chefs Jo Corrigan and Matt Donnelly are life partners. They founded their seminal paddock-to-plate Fitzroy restaurant, The Commoner, in 2007. “What was in season and what was available at certain times of the year drove what we cooked in the kitchen,” says Corrigan. “In 2009 I hired a Flexicar and drove to forage for mushrooms in the hills around Melbourne,” says Donnelly. He sold what fungi they didn’t use in their restaurant to other chefs. A small foraging business had started, and they called it Mushrooms Anonymous. The couple then moved to the country in Central Victoria and in 2016 they sold the restaurant and concentrated on produce. They realised they had developed a deep and dedicated customer base and had the ability to deliver delicate produce. The only trouble was that they could only operate in winter when the fungi were popping up. They decided they needed fresh vegetables to sell throughout the year, and this meant they needed to find some land to grow vegetables. They letterboxed local farmers and found two hectares of land with access to water and started planting vegetables.

Where is it?
The Force of Nature Food Co, incorporating Mushrooms Anonymous, is based on the rich, fertile soil in the cool climate of Romsey, 65km north of Melbourne. “The topsoil is amazing,” says Donnelly. In some parts of our farm, it’s 10 metres deep.”

Why it’s different
These are farmers and foragers who once were chefs. They know what chefs want and grow produce that is different from mainstream suppliers. This year, for example, they harvested and dried Espelette pepper, a chilli popular in the French Basque Country. They also know how to harvest, pack, store and deliver delicate produce, such as zucchini flowers or morels, in perfect condition for the kitchen. Their farm is managed using organic principles, regenerating the soil with compost and green manure crops.

Who’s a fan?
“I use what they pitch at us,” says Almay Jordaan, owner and chef at Old Palm Liquor in Brunswick East and Neighbourhood Wine in Fitzroy North. “The produce is so flavoursome I don’t have to do much to what they grow. Matt’s beefsteak tomatoes speak for themselves. We slice them and serve them with tarragon dressing at Neighbourhood. At Old Palm I dress them with tamarind and coconut. Simple. Delicious.”

“Matt and Jo are a dream to work with,” says Lucy Whitlow, pastry chef at Grana. “They are the most passionate people, incredibly generous with their time and knowledge. This past winter I have been glacéing the pine mushrooms to serve with cheese, like a quince paste. I have also made a pine mushroom crème caramel. It has wonderful, earthy, sweet flavours and tastes like caramel popcorn to me.”

Where can I get it?
During summer and autumn, a weekly farmgate sells produce directly to the public starting with a garlic day in the first week of December and finishing at the end of March with a pumpkin day. Buy the Espelette from Meatsmith in Collingwood, St Kilda and Brighton. To contact Force of Nature Food Co, call 0408 139 352.

By Richard Cornish