Friday, November 16, 2007

Stalking Wild Mushrooms

Need a reason to fall in love with autumn? This time of year is often soggy and cold. It is universally viewed as a time of decline, as trees shed leaves and days grow aggravatingly short. But a walk in the woods this time of year can paradoxically lift one’s spirits, if one knows what to look for.

Like little party torches, mushrooms can be astoundingly vibrant and beautiful. Jack-o-lantern mushrooms are bright orange and glow in the dark! The fabled Fly Agaric mushroom is believed by some to be solely responsible for flying reindeer and santa’s red and white attire. Incredibly, there are even edible brilliant blue mushrooms.

Fresh edible wild mushrooms are a gourmand’s delight. While many of these wild mushrooms can be purchased in grocery stores, there is simply no comparing them to ones you may chance to pick for yourself. However, a hopeful mushroom hunter should follow this list of precautions:

  • If there’s any doubt as to the identity of a mushroom don’t eat it.
    I started learning about mushrooms last year. I would spot them while I was walking, bring them home, study them, draw them, and then attempt to identify them based upon photographs and also based upon running through a classification key, both of which can be found in this trusty mushroom guide. Most would advise that you always get a second opinion from an experienced mushroom hunter before sampling.
  • Do not pick mushrooms, rather cut the stalk free with a knife.
    That way you won’t accidentally dislodge some of the mycelium along with your mushroom.
  • Sustainably harvest
    Preferentially take good quality specimens only when there are others in the vicinity that you will leave to spread spores, thereby increasing your bounty in the future. Mushrooms are the above-ground reproductive parts of the underground organism (the mycelium), so while taking the fruiting body does not hurt the mycelium, leaving some to stand and spread spores will be beneficial.
  • Don’t visibly mark your patch or brag to others about the whereabouts.
    We are all curious creatures – most of us will investigate man-made markers in the woods. The fewer people know where you are scavenging, the more likely you can sustainably harvest your patch. Learn how to navigate by natural landmarks.
  • And on that note, keep track of where you are going.
    While hunting down mushrooms, one tends to keep one’s eyes on the ground. In this manner it is very easy to get turned around in the woods. Being aware of natural landmarks can be helpful here.
  • When, at last, you discover a patch of wild edible mushrooms, know how to store and cook them properly.
    Keep them dry and cool and eat them as soon as possible (the last part isn't that hard, really). If this is your first experience eating this particular mushroom species, only serve a small taste. Some people are more sensitive to certain mushrooms than others, so make sure your mushrooms agree with you before you indulge. Dust off humus and pine needles with a soft dish towel. Butter and garlic are your best friends. Slice your mushrooms so that they are uniformly sized. Heat, on medium, in oil and/or butter on one side for about a minute. Turn, reduce heat to simmer, add garlic and/or a splash of marsala, madeira, white wine, or sherry. Cook until you see light browning. Most mushrooms are best served without strong interfering flavors.

Want to learn more? Why not join a local mycology club or attend one of their mushroom shows?


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