I wrote about a newfound love of mushrooms and foraging a while back in a blog post. My wife loved mushrooms and I hated them, the net result making me feel like I didn’t understand either. So I did a modest amount of research and immediately felt engulfed in a world I simply hadn’t seen before.
I never had an interest in Volkswagons until I bought a Golf TDI in 2010. I would have easily confused a Rabbit with a Golf with a freakin’ Yugo at that point. Once I was in my little diesel devil I saw them everywhere. I swear I see a Golf TDI every other day. I also see a lot of pregnant people nowadays. I don’t think I paid as much attention before parenthood but now I feel like I can spot a pregnancy at glow. Now that I’ve learned a bit about mushrooms, been on some nice collaborative forays and exhausted numerous references for identification, I feel like mushrooms are nearly everywhere. It’s their world and I just live and eat in it.
Short of sword swallowing, I think this hobby made wife more nervous than anything. There are less deadly mushroom varieties than deadly sins but my wife found every scary story on the internet that preached chastity with eating this mystical mycological fruit. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that they got to me, too. I mean seriously, have you heard about Nicholas Evans almost dying and getting a kidney transplant?!?! Reading about kidney failure or even worse from something as innocent as foraging was almost enough to scare me away from such a hobby. However, the world of mycology, the wealth of variety, the chance of finding them and the idea of collecting these endless experiences won me over.
As time passed, I kept my eyes open and did my best to learn how to identify what I found. The Audubon app and guide are great, there are many other great books, too, but eventually it was a few words of confidence from people that had more experience than I did. They were practically strangers but the confidence of a couple encouraging words were what finally tipped the trust in myself, them and some books and gave me the courage to eat mushrooms I had found on roadside forests and dank crevices of the earth. And I’m here to blog about it!
Chanterelles were first. I was on a walk in my neighborhood near an area known for flooding. This was about a month ago and we were in the midst of an awesome series of storms. I think it rained for nearly two weeks straight and the ground was exploding with mycological life. There’s a knot of land between a couple houses, on a forested corner of the winding streets of Archer Woods. On a bank of moss and mondo grass there were little orange trumpet-like stalks popping up from the growth. My immediate thought was, “Holy Shit! Those are chanterelles!” but I was not quite confident immediately. I was walking dogs with my sister in law and I paused and finally said that I thought those were in fact Cantharellus cibarius. I picked a handful and brought them home. Nobody believed me and they made me swear not to eat them. I was convinced so I sought out to convince them, too. False gills? Check. Forked false gills? Check. I was sure.
Chicken of the woods was second, the next day. I was on the usual family walk when something caught my eye in a patch of conifers right off the road. Once you see a Laetiporus you’ll be able to recognize them from afar. They are nearly unmistakable, could be confused with a sulfur shelf but unlikely. They are also delicious and finds are usually profound (this one easily was a four pound haul). I think mostly because it looked so alien but also because she didn’t trust my mushroom identification skills, Cindy forbade me from eating this, too.
That weekend we went to our first group mushroom foray with the Piedmont Mycological Society. There was a mix of skill levels, a lot of field guides and a couple of degrees in tow at a far away conservatory. I brought the previous days’ finds with me but also found a few pounds of hedgehogs, indigo milky caps and chanterelles there. The group nearly fell on me and my chicken of the woods as I pulled it out and gave it to another forager – an offering for a society dinner the following Sunday. The knowledgeable and experienced gave bifocaled but quick glances with quick, confident “yups, chanterelles” to the orange blossoms formerly suspect. And Hydnum repandum were quickly met with a nearly ubiquitous “Mmmmm…hedgehogs.”. Cindy was sold.
On the way home she double checked the location of my neighborhood chanterelle find. We stopped by the spot and she jumped out, in the rain, to collect new fruit. Once home I could barely keep her out of the kitchen before she cleaned and cooked all of the chanterelles. We had them with some fettuccine after cooking them down in some butter and garlic. They were amazing: nutty and earthy with a hazelnut sweetness. Cindy woke up in the middle of the night and leaned over saying, “I think my stomach hurts…do you think the mushrooms were poisonous?” to which I replied, “They could only be mistaken with Jack-o-lanterns and those only give you diarrhea for 1-2 days, and I’m not mistaken.”. Needless to say we’re both still here.
The following day I went for a walk near the Eno river. I had once found a huge chicken of the woods here and the Cole Mill park on this river felt like a hot spot for foraging. I ended up finding my first ever Craterellus cornucopiodies, or black trumpet. “Trumpet of the dead” in French, this fungi is deceiving because it looks nasty to the untrained eye. It’s also really hard to see. Even though they grow in patches they tend to look like shadows or play on light before they look like mushrooms. But the flavor is unmistakable, bold and beautiful. I hear that some chefs prefer the taste over truffles and it’s easy to see why. Black Trumpets became the second mushroom I actually ate, ending up cooked down in olive oil and in a pizza with caramelized onions…again, amazing. These mushrooms are often recommended for novice mycological foragers as there are no poisonous lookalikes.
By this time the hedgehogs I had found were petering out so I set them out to hopefully spore and become one with my garden. I’ve been trying to hit the Eno regularly since the trumpet score and the other day I came upon a few patches of the spine tooth spored hedgehog. I took home a couple of pounds and cooked them down in a cream sauce that I paired with a fig and chevre ravioli. I added three boletes (either edulis or variipes) I found on a dog walk that night and the combo was nutty, sweet and earthly – so f’ing delicious.
These three instances have marked something significant for me – the point where I came full circle with a food. I love that moment, like eating something you’ve grown, hunted or caught. However, having the confidence in the fungal roulette of mushroom identification is like a badge of awesomeness…or tastiness. To that end I encourage anyone reading this to take a look around you, there just might be something tasty by your feet. But be warned, you should be sure about what you eat – like they say, any mushroom is edible…once.