Hunting the Wild Mushroom
If you are accustomed to getting your excitement from alpine skiing, ocean sailing or mountain climbing, mushroom picking might seem a little tame. Believe it or not, though, it can be a thrill that lasts a lifetime. Once you get in touch with your inner hunter-gatherer, you will discover there is nothing quite like the pure pleasure of coming back from the woods with a basket brimming over with delectable edible mushrooms. As wild mushrooms have become more established in Canadian cuisine, a few varieties can be purchased at farmers markets and larger grocery stores. When available, though, they can be fabulously expensive and are not always in top condition.
In season, choice wild mushrooms such as Chanterelles, Puffballs, Morels, the incomparable King Boletus (Ceps in French, Porcini in Italian) and a host of others can be found in many parts of Canada. These splendid fruits of the wild offer subtle and complex flavours that make domestic mushrooms seem tasteless and uninteresting by comparison.
Many people are deterred from wild mushroom hunting because of the understandable fear that they might mistakenly pick something dangerous. There are, of course, some deadly species out there, but with proper guidance and by following a few simple rules, the risks can be avoided. The best option for the beginner is to go out with an experienced mushroom hunter a few times. With a little more experience, you will gain confidence in your judgement and be able to fly solo. The cautionary note: if in doubt about any mushroom, do not consume it. It is always a good idea to photograph such specimens so that you can later show the evidence to an expert for proper identification.
what you need
Forget the megabucks you need to get started in other sports; equipping yourself for mushroom hunting will set you back just a few dollars at most.
You will need the following items:
A reputable and portable wild mushroom guide. There are several good ones on the market as well as excellent information online. Public libraries are also a valuable resource. A couple of guides I can recommend: The Audobon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms, Alfred A. Knopf; The New Savory Wild Mushroom, University of Washington Press
A suitable container for your haul: Best choice is a wide-brimmed basket that can hold a decent quantity without damaging the more fragile species. If you are using bags, always use paper, never plastic, which can cause mushrooms to deteriorate rapidly.
A short-bladed knife: Mushrooms should be cut off cleanly above the stem leaving part of the base behind, which helps the fungus to regenerate.
A magnifying glass: Some mushrooms can be positively identified by their spore prints, which can be seen best under magnification. This is an essential tool for the mushroom hunter.
A small, soft-bristled brush: Use to clean off surface debris without harming your prize.
A compass and preferably, a local topographical map as well: If you are in the woods, always carry these safety items. It is all too easy to get lost when you are absorbed in the hunt!
Sensible clothing: A long-sleeved shirt and pants, a broad-brimmed hat and a solid pair of shoes or boots. Pack some rain gear and bug juice as well. Be careful, though, to avoid contaminating mushrooms with insect repellent from your hands.
A camera: It is a good idea to take a small camera suitable for close up shots. This will enable you to put together a photo library to help identify species you may not be sure about in the future.
most important edible species: what are they and where and when can you find them?
Broadly speaking, mushrooms can be described as any visible fleshy fungus. These fascinating organisms play an important role in natural ecology and, in addition to being a great source of food, are invaluable in medicine as well. The term “toadstool,” sometimes used to describe inedible or poisonous mushrooms, really has no meaning, scientific or otherwise. What we are interested in, however, are ones that are good to eat and relatively common in this country. Although relatively few mushrooms are really poisonous, there are many others that are of little interest, either because they are inedible or simply unpalatable.
Edible mushrooms come in a bewildering variety of shapes, colours, sizes and consistency. Once your eye is attuned to looking for mushrooms, you will be amazed at what you missed before. There are many that resemble the common commercial variety, while others come in incredibly colourful and often strange looking forms. They can be found growing on the forest floor, on decaying logs, in fields and on gravelly roadsides. Each species has its preferred habitat and a good field guide will provide this and other valuable information. Always be on the alert, though. In my experience, the mushroom you are hunting can sometimes pop up in some pretty unexpected places.
Mushrooms thrive in warm, wet and humid conditions. In Eastern Canada, the season really starts in July, when warmth and humidity kick into high gear. Other species do not appear until early fall and a few will still be around until the snow begins to fly. The best time to hunt is early in the morning. It usually takes a couple of days for mushrooms to fruit after a period of sustained rain. Once started, though, they can grow very rapidly and soon attract insects and small forest animals that appreciate them just as much as we do.
Mushrooms fall into many categories, but for “Pothunters,” as they are often called, the three most important are gilled mushrooms (like the common domestic variety), Boletes and Chanterelles. The aptly described Puffballs are also worth searching out, as are the much-prized Morels, but the latter are much less common.
Chanterelles are distinguished from gilled mushrooms by their blunt edged, rather than sharp-edged veins and trumpet or vase shaped cap. The choice Yellow Chanterelle (Cantharellus Cibarius) is relatively common and easy to recognize, making it a safe and delicious choice for beginners. It has a pleasant, mildly perfumed scent reminiscent of apricots. It is usually two to five inches wide across the cap. There are several other edible Chanterelles and only one, the Woolly Chanterelle, is considered somewhat toxic. It is relatively easy to distinguish from its edible fellows.
Season: Late summer to late fall.
The Boletes are very easy to distinguish and are also a pretty safe choice for the beginner. This family all have a distinctive spongy underside, which is quite obvious when compared to other mushrooms. Most Boletes are edible and several, especially the King Boletus (Boletus Edulis), are choice. The Boletes to be avoided are those with red pores, which are known to be toxic. The fabulous King Boletus can range in colour from a light tan cap to somewhat darker shades of brown. Underneath the cap, the spongy surface is white. The stem can range from whitish to dingy light brown. Stems also tend to be narrower just underneath the cap and grow quite bulbous closer to the base. The King Boletus grows anywhere from 4 to 12 inches across the cap. Like other Boletes, though, it is a particular favourite for woodland creatures, so specimens that have been around a while often have a bite out of them or are infested by insects.
Season: Late summer to fall.
There are a very large number of gilled mushrooms, ranging from the readily available kind on grocery store shelves to some which, unfortunately, are deadly poisonous. These include ones with such cheery names as “Destroying Angel” and ‘The Death Cup.” Needless to say, you want to steer well clear of this lot. The good news is that most varieties don’t fall into this category. It does mean, however, that you need to be extremely careful to be sure you identify gilled mushrooms correctly. Gilled mushrooms come in all shapes and sizes, gills being about their only common feature.
The Meadow Mushroom (Agaricus Campestris) is often mistaken for the common, commercially cultivated mushroom. It does look very similar, with a smooth white cap and firm white flesh. Distinguishing features, though, are pink, then purple-brown gills and a white veil that initially covers the gills then breaks, leaving a slight ring around the stem. It is always found in open areas, especially in cow fields, never in the forest.
Season: Late spring, summer and fall.
Another of my favourites is the Delicious Milky Cap (Lactarius Deliciosus). This orange-brown beauty has been celebrated since ancient times (a picture of one was discovered on a wall in Herculaneum). The cap is rounded at first, then becoming somewhat depressed in the centre and rolled down slightly around the edges as it develops. Gills are orange and run down the stem. When cut, it exudes a kind of orange milk, hence the name “Lactarius.” The scent, too, is mildly orange-like and, as the name implies, it is a choice edible.
Season: Late summer and fall, typically in softwood forests.
how to correctly identify the good ones and avoid the bad ones
As already mentioned, learning from an experienced mushroom hunter is your best bet. Personally, I started by going out with trusted mushroom hunting friends with plenty of experience. When I began my first solo forays, I brought back my haul for one of these experts to positively identify. At first, I would pick only one or two obviously safe examples, and gradually extended my range as I developed more expertise.
I also recommend that you buy several guides. Mushrooms can appear quite different from varied angles and at different stages of their development. Comparing illustrations in different guides can clear up some of the confusion. As you will also discover, some mushrooms must be identified by their spore prints. Others will stain a certain colour when cut. Authoritative guidebooks are essential sources for this kind of information.
It is impossible, in a short article like this, to do any more than steer you in the right direction. Like the complex world of wine, understanding wild mushrooms is a life-long pursuit that can bring enormous pleasure into your life.
In the September issue of Tidings, Sean Wood will show you how to preserve wild mushrooms and the delicious ways they can be used to enhance your culinary works.