Mention "fungus" and watch as noses around you being to wrinkle. But the truth is, humans have relied on fungi since the beginning of time. The fuzzier members of the family (molds) have brought us cheese and antibiotics, while fruiting varieties (mushrooms) have made their way to our dinner tables and, in some cases, expanded our consciousness. Rumor has it Adam and Eve took full advantage of a certain mushroom’s ability to aid in the latter and inadvertently spawned a religion or two.
On the edible side, countless varieties exist with flavors, textures and uses that have proven invaluable in the culinary world. Nearly all cuisines incorporate them in some manner, because they’re found everywhere—from open plains to woodlands, even in sandy deserts. We top our pizzas with them, bread them and fry them, grill them and toss them into a number of sauces, yet most of us are only familiar with basic grocery store varieties that come suffocated in cellophane. Venture out past our backyards, though, and a world filled with strange and sometimes delicious mushrooms is ours for the taking.
Mushroom hunting continues to swell in popularity, which makes the picking a little more competitive. As I set out this summer to forage for fungus in Missouri and Northern New Mexico, I often came upon forests picked clean, with undesirable shrooms tossed aside in piles under trees. I stuck it out, learned a few tricks and eventually began to bring in my own hand-harvested bounty.
The single most indispensable tool for any mushroom hunter, amateur or old-hand, is information. Field guides are a must. It’s important to use more than one, as each book will have pictures and illustrations that depict mushrooms at various stages. Correctly identifying wild mushrooms is crucial—one mistake can end your hunting for good. In addition to field guides, consulting a local conservation department or mushroom club is always a good idea. Regardless of expertise, an attitude of “when in doubt, throw it out” is wisely employed.
Other tools vary by preference. A small knife or shovel aids in the identification process by keeping mushrooms whole as you dig them up. Collecting the entire stem can mean the difference between a memorable meal and gastrointestinal distress, as similarities between poisonous and edible specimens require having as many available characteristics to study as possible.
What you use to gather your shrooms also comes down to preference. While some advise placing individually wrapped mushrooms in a shallow basket, most hunters opt for whatever’s on hand. The ever-available plastic Wal-Mart sack is common, as are paper bags with handles. I settled on mesh bags based on the advice of a website. I liked this method because it gave the mushrooms ventilation to "breathe," while allowing them to deposit their spores as I made my way through the woods. There's no harm helping ensure future harvests.
With all my tools procured, I headed out. I started in Missouri, wandering through damp, mosquito-infested forests. I had little luck at first. Poking through leaf litter, I mostly saw inedible and poisonous species. My second trip out was a little more profitable.
Quite by accident, I happened upon a clump of wood ears—a jelly fungus that resembles ears growing on the side of a tree. They’re used mainly for their crisp texture in Asian cooking. Soon after bagging the wood ears, I stumbled upon three enormous king boletes (better known as porcini mushrooms). Highly prized in many countries, I left the woods that day feeling rather proud of my mycological prowess.
But chanterelles were what I was really after. These trumpet-shaped beauties come in many varieties, but I knew that Cantharellus cibarius, golden chanterelles, were out there waiting for me. I studied some maps and cruised message boards for tips before nailing down what seemed like a neglected location. And, based on what I discovered there, I was forced to swear my family to secrecy about the exact spot.
We collected several more boletes with caps as big as salad bowls before the nearing lightning and the chance of getting caught finally chased us off.
My first, quick walk down a trail was discouraging. Lesser boletes had been thrown in the bushes. Someone had beaten me to the punch. But as we headed back to the car, my brother pointed to a small pile of leaves surrounding a mound of velvety green moss. There, camouflaged by the shape and color of the leaves, were a few old chanterelles, their color faded by age. My brother is colorblind, but he can spot subtle differences in shade. The chanterelles easily stood out against the groundcover to him.
I returned to the spot after a good rain and followed a trail of chanterelles down a muddy creek bed, crawling through vicious, thorny bushes and over and under fallen trees. I found a field of chanterelles far from the foot-marked path I started on. Over two days, I hauled in around seven pounds of the apricot-scented mushrooms that ranged in size from the width of a dime to specimens larger than my hand.
Chanterelles are often confused with jack-o-lanterns, a toxic mushroom that glows in the dark. So I took my haul home and did spore prints to confirm my identification. Spore prints involve laying a cap, spore-side down, on a piece of white paper, then covering it with a jar and waiting for spores to drop. Inspecting the spore color helps discern one species from another. As I held my paper to the light and a dusting of pale yellow spores revealed itself, I nearly shouted out loud.
For a final confirmation, I dropped in on the conservation department. The first naturalist I spoke with told me I had found false chanterelles—edible but not too tasty. I wasn’t convinced. She showed them to another naturalist, who deemed them jack-o-lanterns. I pushed a little further, explaining that my mushrooms had not grown on wood (like jack-o-lanterns) but in soil (like chanterelles). And besides, they weren’t bioluminescent. Then there was the matter of gills. My mushrooms had blunt, forked "false" gills, whereas those unwanted jack-o-lanterns have true, knife-edged gills. Another naturalist came over to see what I had found and picked up on something I'd forgotten to mention. She held a mushroom up to her nose and inhaled deeply. Chanterelles, she confirmed. The intense, fruity aroma present in my shrooms absolutely ruled out jack-o-lanterns. They wished me happy eating and sent me on my way.
Eaten fresh, the chanterelles were tender and peppery. We ate them for breakfast in scrambled eggs—simple and delicious. I spent three days drying the rest before heading back to New Mexico.
My next attempt occurred in the Taos Ski Valley. With local guides Eric and Jeff and my sister-in-law Talitha in tow, we hiked to about 10,000 feet and scoured the woods as thunderstorms did their best to wash us out. Yet again, more savvy hunters had been there before us. While I resigned myself to disappointment, my guides had a little more luck. I was looking for king boletes, but they had something else in mind. They were filling bags with Amanita muscaria, known as fly agarics or, more commonly, toadstools. Brilliantly red with white spots, these mushrooms wouldn’t end up in the soup pot, but were instead intended for more ... uh, recreational use.
I did find a lone porcini growing next to a log, but I was soaking wet and dark clouds threatened to dump more rain. I was ready to pack it in. As we drove down the mountain, Eric suddenly yelled for me to pull over. He scurried back up the mountain a little way and disappeared into the trees. Then he emerged with an armful of porcini. I ran to where he was foraging, ducked under a "No Trespassing" sign and headed into somebody’s wooded yard. We collected several more boletes with caps as big as salad bowls before the nearing lightning and the chance of getting caught finally chased us off.
Back in town, we feasted on porcini sautéed with butter and garlic. Three mushrooms fed about five of us; the rest Eric sold to a restaurant for $60. Not a bad haul, and I’m sure those amanitas made several people very happy and very high.
Next I’m heading for the ponderosa forests in search of Boletus barrowsii: a bolete similar to porcini but rumored to taste even better. Found in New Mexico and other Southwestern states, it was first described in 1971 by an amateur mycologist, Charles Barrows, right here in New Mexico. After that, I hope to return to my chanterelle hunting grounds in the spring. The elusive morel might make its home there, too, and that’s reason enough to trek across the country.
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