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ForageCast: Fall’s Fleeting Mycological Treasures

Lion's mane and maple leaves

Lion’s mane and maple leaves

Camouflaged among the freshly fallen maple leaves, autumn mushrooms are thriving in the wet woods. The long-awaited rains – slow, steady, and abundant – arrived just before a looming frost that threatens to put the mushrooms to bed for the season.

Fall foraging has a different tenor and flavor from summer hunting – diversity of gourmet edibles is down and with splashes of color everywhere it can be easy to overlook mycological treasures. No longer can you traipse through the woods with a broad, sweeping gaze, waiting for the signature golden hue of chanterelles or the fiery orange of a lobster to jump out from the brown duff.  You may walk a mile only to spot a few pithy entolomas, when suddenly a thousand-strong legion of honey mushrooms or a heavy, bug-free trio of king boletes sends you reeling.  You might check one hundred ancient oaks and find nothing but slippery acorns, but keep pressing on – the next oak tree, seemingly no different than the rest, could hold enough maitake to carry your family through the winter.

I love late season hunting; you can taste the crisp, starlit nights and heavy morning dew in each bite of blewit. You can smell clean October air and fresh mountain mist in every morsel of lion’s mane. Each hunt carries the weight of knowing it might be the season’s last as the daylight dwindles and winter falls upon the land.

Northeastern ForageCast for the next two weeks!

Northeastern ForageCast for the next two weeks!

Maitake on the Autumnal Equinox

 

hen-of-the-woods-2016

My heart sank as I reached the crest of the hill to find my most faithful maitake (hen of the woods) tree standing naked, unadorned. After a summer plagued by drought, I had grown accustomed to such disappointment. But the successful hunter is an eternal optimist, always seeing potential in every fiber of the forest. We’d finally gotten a half-inch of rain, and it couldn’t hurt to get down on my hands and knees and scour for signs of hen.

If you’re not familiar with maitake, it is an exquisitely edible and medicinal mushroom with a short, but often overwhelmingly abundant season. One good hen can weigh several pounds; one good oak can host several (I’ve seen up to seven) hens. No wonder the mycophilic Japanese named it maitake, the dancing mushroom – find a good flush of Grifola frondosa and you’ll surely be dancing too!

But I’m not dancing yet – just crawling – and feeling rather pathetic when I suddenly spot a minuscule gray, fleshy nub, a pinprick of a mushroom dwarfed by the acorns strewn about the oak duff. It seems promising, cool to the touch and exuding tiny droplets of moisture, but it is too diminutive to know for sure. I make a mental note to return in a few days as I circle around to the other side of the tree, studying the soil with newfound confidence. With my eyes on, I notice what is undeniably a baby hen – about the size of a racquetball but already exhibiting the tight, brain-like appearance of a miniature maitake. Instantly I am in a better mood, and I bid farewell to the old oak, knowing I’ll be back in several days.

It’s my lunch break and I don’t have time to linger, so I take the shortest route home. I cut off-trail through mixed hardwoods and take off sprinting, struggling to refrain from inspecting each and every oak tree.

But my mushroom mind will not let the hunt rest, and I stop to circle a grandfather oak with a basal scar, looking like prime maitake territory.  I see nothing from the downhill side of the tree, but I stick my toes into the soil and crane my neck around the uphill side of the giant. Before I can even process what I have seen, I have already reflexively yelped out for joy. There is a massive, mature hen, just inches from my face. If I had been any closer, it would have been in my mouth.

Hens are here, and there is hardly a mushroom so cherished in this mycophilic household sauteed, grilled, braised, or pickled. If you do well in the next couple weeks, you may find a harvest to hold you through the New England winter.

Forest to Highchair Cuisine

Eliana + Judah

My daughter, at two-years-old, already understands where her favorite food comes from. “Papa, hunt mauk-mee,” (mushrooms) she says. “Hike.”

How can I resist? I take her in one arm, paper bag and mushroom knife in the other, and we hit the trails behind our house just before sunset.

She has the first find, a blood-red Boletus frostii, nestled beneath a dying beech tree. “Papa, mauk-mee, mauk-mee!”  This edible species is among the most brilliantly colored of all boletes, but its sour flavor and mushy texture can leave something to be desired.

“Nice find,” I tell her, “but we are looking for porcini.”

“Chee-nee!” she exclaims, not missing a beat, and for the first time it is clear to me that she understands the difference between a gourmet edible and the legions of bland, bitter, poisonous, or otherwise inedible species.

We march on, my eyes scanning the uphill side of the trail looking for the light-brown cap and swollen stem of Boletus atkinsonii, a member of the porcini group with an affinity for oaks and other hardwoods. But once again, Eliana proves her forager’s eyes are the freshest.

“Chee-nee! Papa, Chee-nee!” Call it beginner’s luck, but she had spotted a plump pair of kings by an old oak on the downhill side of the trail, where I was not even looking. The maggots had gotten them first, but that did little to sully the magic of the moment.

Eliana’s kings were flags, and soon the two of us were following an impressive fruiting of Boletus atkinsonii, climbing along ledges and pulling back leaf litter to reveal their pudgy caps. My daughter was finding as many porcini as I was, her appetite for the hunt as insatiable as my own. Each time we found another, she would yelp out in delight – “Chee-nee! Pick!”; then, “Papa, more!”, as we continued pursuing woodland royalty.  She ignored the more pedestrian fare – old man of the woods boletes, rotting milk-caps – in a single-minded quest for chubby, regal piglets.

For this devoted father and forager, it was a revelation, the richest find of the season.

As the sun went down and our bag filled up, I coaxed Eliana out of the woods. She knew exactly what the next step would be in this forest to highchair foraging adventure – “Papa, chee-nee! Eat! Papa, eat!”

When we arrived home, my little forager burst through the door with big pride – “Mama, chee-nee! Hunt, mauk-mee!”

We brushed and rinsed the mushrooms together, then let our porcini sweat off the moisture in a dry cast iron pan before adding a teaspoon of butter and, finally, a dash of heavy cream.

I did not even have time to throw a bib on Eliana. The pile of cooked mushrooms disappeared (with an audible “Mmmm”) as fast as I could spoon them into a bowl. I had to be assertive just to get a few bites, but porcini had never tasted so sweet.

Mountain Kings

IMG_5865

As I entered the woods with my childhood best friend on my 30th birthday backpacking adventure, my attention was fixed on the ground as we followed a languorous river. Lipstick­-red, vomit­-inducing emetic Russulas lined the trailside, and acrid peppery milkies were sprayed about the flat forest floor. Deadly destroying angels were everywhere, menacingly elegant and dangerous. Yet a three-­mile, flat riverside walk into the backcountry did not reveal a single gourmet mushroom, and the soil seemed drier with each step.

Then, the trail turned and we started climbing steeply. Our legs burned and we began to shed layers as the mid-­day sun beat down upon our shoulders. I was no longer looking as intently for mushrooms, my hopes of a hearty harvest shriveling.

The first hedgehog mushroom just presented itself to me, its distinctive pale peach cap leaving no doubt that I would find teeth, rather than pores or gills, below. A first find of the season is always glorious, and a quick scan revealed five more juicy Hydnum repandum within a ten­-foot radius. I pulled a paper bag out of my backpack and harvested a handful of plump hogs.

The hedgehogs were soon followed by my season’s first small lion’s mane (Hericium coralloides), and I began to realize that the cold nights and morning mountain mist had invigorated the mushrooms at the higher elevations. Often I look to low bogs and valleys in search of moisture during drought. But higher does not always mean drier, and it is easy to overlook the cool mushroom havens that can be found if you climb into the clouds.

Trailside porciniI had a smile to my face as I sauntered higher up the mountain, backpack on my shoulders and paper mushroom bag coddled carefully in my hand. Without even trying, I spotted the prettiest porcini (Boletus cf. edulis) I have seen since my Ithaca foraging days. It stood out like an alpine beacon, a quintessential King with massive, blemish-­free stem. The cap was firm and picturesque, and needed no preparation to make a nutty trailside snack. All mushrooms should be cooked as a general rule, but a notable exception is a bug-­free King. How could one improve upon such perfection?

As we marched higher still, the trees becoming stunted and misshapen, I was surprised to see the chunky hedgehogs continue to fruit along the trail, and I picked up another season’s first – yellowfoot chanterelles (Craterellus tubaeformis) – just below treeline. We arrived at camp late, too tired to cook or set up a tent, and promptly fell asleep upon a bed of moss and rosy red Russulas.

The next afternoon, on our hike out of the forest, we cleaned and cooked the wild mushrooms (minus the porcini cap) along with sliced summer sausage. Though we had no oil, butter or salt, the result was outstanding and imbued with an exquisite mountain terroir. I typically don’t mix porcini (nutty, earthy) with chanterelles (fruity, floral) in the same pot, but for this wild backcountry one­-pot wonder, the medley of mountain mushrooms was balanced and delightful.

ForageCast: The Ox Tongue on the Oak Tree

Beefsteak mushroom

Like a crimson tongue shooting up from the scorched earth, scouring for moisture, the beefsteak polypore commanded my attention. Also called the ox tongue, the beefsteak (Fistulina hepatica) is a beguilingly beautiful polypore that I almost never find, let alone on a bone-dry August afternoon.

But there they were, two vibrant slabs of red meat at the base of a dead oak, undeniably resembling fresh cuts of their bovine namesake. Candidly, I have never tried the beefsteak – I rarely see it and, when I do, I typically prefer to leave it on the tree.

This time, though, the timing was just right, and I took an ox tongue home with me. Opinions as to the culinary merits of this species vary – I will be experimenting with a few different preparations and will report back.

In the meantime, the weather is shifting. Yesterday’s rains triumphantly broke the drought, and the coming week promises bucketsful of rain and mushrooms!

ForageCast for the next two weeks!

ForageCast for the next two weeks!

 

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