What to pick and where to fill that empty esky. Linda Moon goes foraging in the Blue Mountains and inland to Oberon, NSW.
Before the drab days of winter, nature puts on one last magical show - a burst of colour and abundance. Ripening apples gleam on the trees while mushrooms in crimson, rust and orange hues peek like pixies from the earth. Most joyous of all are the bright leaves of maples and other deciduous trees.
Blessed with mellow, yet warm days, autumn is the perfect time for stepping outdoors. The hills of the Blue Mountains and inland to the farmlands and pine forests beyond are popular for viewing the splendour of autumn leaves.
Hotspots for leaf peeping include the townships of Wentworth Falls, Leura and Blackheath, and the secluded village of Mount Wilson, with many backstreets and sidewalks scarfed with maples, elms and other colour-changing trees. Further afield, the rural town of Oberon also glistens with autumn colour.
Gardens offer another means to enjoy the autumn show. Prime spots include the graceful Everglades Garden in Leura.
The 5.2-hectare property is a European-style garden designed by Paul Sorensen and entry costs $15 for adults ($10 concession; kids under five years free).
Alternatively, ramble through Mount Tomah's 28-hectare Blue Mountains Botanic Garden (entry free). The cold-climate garden is great for picnics, or perhaps dine at the onsite restaurant.
Just 12 minutes' drive from Mount Tomah, you can take a jaunt through Bilpin's orchards.
You can pick your own apples at Bilpin Springs Orchard (where you can also pick autumn pears), Shields Orchard and Pine Crest Orchard. For a full list of pick-your-own orchards in the area, check out harvesttrailsandmarkets.com.au.
While in Bilpin, drop in to the Bilpin Market when it's open on Saturday mornings at Bilpin Community Hall.
The stalls are laden with in-season fruit, organic veg, bread, honey and preserves. The onsite cafe is open for brunch and lunch.
There's another chance to buy apples further up the hill at Logan Brae Orchard in Blackheath. Every weekend during apple season, the family orchard's packing shed is opened up to sell fresh apples and tasty apple products, such as juice, jams, muffins, toffee apples and apple chutney.
Owners Sam and Asia create their Logan Brae juice from a blend of Gravensteins and Royal Galas or, later in the season, Granny Smiths and Pink Ladies.
Visitors ramble around the outskirts of the orchard and sit overlooking the Blue Mountains escarpment enjoying spicy, steaming cups of hot apple juice and delicious apple pies.
Blackheath is also home to Blackheath Growers Market, where stalls showcasing fresh fruit and vegetables, snacks, coffee, baked goods, honey, nuts, wine, spices and condiments, plants, free-range eggs and more spill from the local community centre into the adjacent Blackheath Gardens.
The market, which runs on the second Sunday of each month (8am to noon), features the products of over 60 local and regional farmers and producers, and prides itself on supporting a paddock-to-plate ethos.
On Sunday, May 3, you can partake in the community spirit of the annual Leura Harvest Festival. It brings a riot of bustling market stalls to Leura Mall - the village's quaint main street lined with cherry trees and maples.
Browse and enjoy the arts, crafts, regional wine and beer tastings, food, plants and more. Watch or partake in the Pet Chook Show or the scarecrow, chocolate cake or jam-making competitions and soak up the creative community vibe.
A 25-minute drive from Blackheath, in the Megalong Valley, lies a secret side to the Blue Mountains: vineyards. Dryridge Estate and Megalong Creek Estate have cellar doors where you can enjoy your vino overlooking the vines to glimpses of the pink cliffs and emerald valley.
Just beyond the mountains lie enchanting realms of pine forests, meadows, farms and the timber industry which offer another landscape and side to the season.
In March and April, the dim, hushed plantation forests of Oberon and Jenolan are strewn with foragers rustling through the stillness, searching for saffron milk caps and slippery jacks.
The edible mushrooms shine like gems on the pine needle floor, inciting shrieks of discovery from the mushroom-hunters. Rare glimpses of kangaroos and black cockatoos are another delight.
Oberon Council's tourism manager, Mathew Webb, recommends beginners join a mushroom fossicking tour, such as that run by celebrity forager Diego Bonetto.
"Many people are not sure what mushrooms to look for," Mr Webb said.
"The guide knows where to take them that is scenic, safe and quiet."
Bonetto's tours are part of Oberon's Field to Forest Festival (1-30 April), an exciting new event in only its second year that aims to unearth the hidden gems of the Oberon region.
"I have been harvesting edible mushrooms in forests since I was a kid, following the footsteps of my uncles in the mountains in Northern Italy," Bonetto said.
"I love it because it gives you the chance to connect with season, ecologies and cycles. It is precious, fulfilling and empowering. And you get mushrooms to take home.
"By learning this ancient skill of finding edible food in the landscape you reconnect to a wilder you, and a younger you."
Bonetto will also host the Forest To Feast forage and picnic alongside stylist, designer and foodie Marnee Fox, who will show you how to preserve your seasonal treats. For more info, check out diegobonetto.com.
As well as the mushroom tours, the Field to Forest Festival features a secluded wine and beer trail tour, offered on two Saturdays in April.
Attendees visit four different local vineyards and a brewery ($95 includes transport and tour guide, an Oberon wine-tasting glass, plus wine and beer tastings and home-cooked grazing platters).
"It's a very rustic wine experience with vineyards that don't have cellar doors," Webb said.
"It may be in someone's house or shed. It's just a really different experience. One of the wineries is located in the middle of the forest."
The drive also showcases stunning, less-seen scenery. These events and more, can be booked from the Oberon tourism website.
With its flatter terrain, the trails and woods are also great for cycling. Grab a map of the local cycling trails from the Oberon visitors' centre.
While in Oberon, take a wander through the regal grounds of Mayfield Garden. For the ticket price ($20 for adults; $10 for children), you can stroll through an extravaganza of themed gardens in their autumn glory.
During Mayfield's autumn festival (April 10 to May 3), for an extra fee, you can also enjoy the Hawkins family's private garden, which has a hedge maze and rowboats on a man-made lake.
Want your own memento of autumn? Pop into Maple Springs Nursery near the historic village of Hartley (between Lithgow and Mount Victoria).
The nursery has an abundance of cold-climate plants to choose from and many more are on display in its lovely Japanese-style garden.
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Where to grab a top picnic to go
After all that foraging in forests, picking your own apples and stocking up at the markets, you'll have worked up an appetite for a picnic.
Picnics By Hannah, Blue Mountains region
The high end of picnicking, a three-hour couple's experience costs $350 and includes a decadent picnic setting, gourmet grazing platter, sparkling mineral water, wine or champagne. Delivered to various scenic locations in the Blue Mountains. See picnicsbyhannah.com.
Hominy Bakery, Katoomba
Hominy is home to quality, mouth-watering pre-prepared sandwiches, gourmet pies, cakes and pastries - try the gluten-free almond, citrus and cardamom cake or the rice and vegetable pie. Phone (02) 4782 9816.
Sushi n Co, Katoomba
Featuring all things Japanese, the humble takeaway boasts fresh ingredients and offers kids, vegetarian and seafood/chicken sushi platters. See more on their Facebook page.
Mountain High Pies, Wentworth Falls
Baked fresh on the premises daily, a huge selection of gourmet pies including vegan and gluten-free choices, sweet treats, and hot and cold drinks awaits in this award-winning pie shop. Tasty tidbit: 30 per cent of the menu caters to vegetarians. See mountainhighpies.com.au.
The Laughing Elephant, Wentworth Falls
Just off the main street, the specialist Asian grocery store offers tasty takeaway rice paper rolls, bahn mi (a Vietnamese sandwich), pho and Japanese udon soups. See more on their Facebook page.
Altitude Delicatessen, Blackheath
Prefer a healthy wrap or sandwich? Duck into Altitude Delicatessen. The highly rated deli also serves up burgers, coffee and more. Phone (02) 4787 6199.
Bakehouse on Wentworth, Blackheath
Another spot to grab a tasty gourmet pie, cake, tart or pastry (made with real butter, eggs and milk). The bakery now has an additional three retail outlets across the mountains, at Leura, Springwood and Glenbrook. See bakehouseonwentworth.com.au.