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ForageCast: First Morels of the Season

Our first morel find of 2017 – pictured is one of two chubby yellow morels we spotted yesterday morning in downtown Burlington, VT.

The season’s first morels, even if growing in highly questionable soil in downtown Burlington, always are a true sight to behold. Jenna, right out the passenger seat window as we were parking, spotted two plump yellow morels on woodchips among dog-doo and debris.

We gazed out the window at the majestic morels, knowing we would not eat these urban fruits but that their presence was a sign of a delightful season to come. Morels have burst into season with gusto, with Vermont flushes reported from Barre to Burlington to the Northeast Kingdom. In higher spots or mountain areas throughout New England you should not expect good flushes for another couple weeks. But in warmer microclimates, even up through New Hampshire and Maine, we’re again reaching the season when we foragers begin our pursuit of the elusive and exquisite morel.

Of course, it’s not just one species of morel we’re looking for – yellows and blacks are equally delicious, and rare and diminutive half-frees are tasty, too. Michael Kuo and collaborators describe 19 DNA-distinct species of North American morels in their 2012 study, an impressive number of outstanding morel variations. Region of harvest is an important factor in keying out morphologically similar morel specimens. It makes the wildcrafter wonder about terroir and flavor, and the need for further studies (sign me up!) exploring the taste of the myriad species and sub-subspecies of gourmet wild mushrooms in North American forests.

But don’t forget – diversity of false morels is also phenomenal. As a rule, do not eat false morels, or any “morel” which does not have a completely hollow, contiguous cavity from tip to tail. The Verpa and Gyromitra false morels may be most likely to confuse foragers – neither has the signature hollow cavity of a true morel.

The stakes are high, but morels are unbelievably good and maddeningly fun to find. True morels are distinctive once you find them in the field with an expert forager and master a few key ID characteristics including the hollow stem. And if you’re ever in doubt, morels are one mushroom any forager would be happy to take off your hands for you!

 

Wintergreen: The Hardy Wild Breath Mint

Wintergreen berries (Gaultheria procumbens) are my favorite January breath mint and trailside snack. One of the few fruits that is actually at its sweetest and freshest on a cold winter or early spring day, frozen wintergreen berries offer the texture of sorbet and a classic wintergreen flavor.

The rosy red berries of this native species persistently cling to the plant and, like wild fox grapes, truly come into their own after the first frost. Prolonged, hard frost only invigorates the wintergreen flavor, reducing lingering bitterness and bringing out the cool, creamy texture of the red berry’s flesh. The fruit is at its finest freshly picked and eaten raw, but its flavor can be strong and only one or two berries is plenty to cleanse the palette. This is not a fruit that should be eaten by the handful; think of it as an garnish or palate cleanser.

Ari forages wintergreen berries in between the trees

Honestly, I cannot remember when I discovered the joy of wintergreen berries, but I can tell you that it was years before I gained the confidence to forage wild mushrooms. As a child who roamed the coniferous wood that abutted pastures behind our home in Western Massachusetts, I loved the unexpected sour, minty, piney, or herbal flavors I discovered in the woods. I grazed on tangy wood sorrel and low-bush blueberries in summer, and nibbled wintergreen berries and made black birch tea on bright January mornings.

Wintergreen thrives in acidic soils, showing a particular affinity for hemlock and white pine in my local Vermont forests. Wintergreen likes shade but to yield the most abundant, plumpest, and juiciest fruit, it needs occasional dappled sunlight. I often see the best fruitings very close to the side of the trail or along power line cuts, but too much sunlight can make the berries slightly bitter or buddy.

Wintergreen foliage

The plant is not rare if you know the proper habitat, but fruitings are often modest and intermittent and it takes patience and precise timing to find the plumpest, reddest berries at their sweetest, coolest and mintiest. Each small plant may put out just one or two fruits per season, though trios of red jewels are not unusual. Be mindful to harvest sustainably – these berries are slow-growing and a few go a long way as a sweet or savory garnish.

Wintergreen almost always grows in close proximity to its sneakiest look-alike, partridgeberry, which is not highly toxic but is bland and certainly not recommended for human consumption (leave it for the partridges). Keep in mind that the potent essential oil of wintergreen leaves can be toxic in certain quantities.

If the plant has lots of small red berries and a viney, groundcover-like growth habit, it is probably partridgeberry. Wintergreen looks more like a tiny shrub than a running groundcover, and each small wintergreen plant never has more than a few distinguished looking berries. Many plants are without berries. Wintergreen berries, depending on the season, may have a pronounced minty aroma, and always offer a wintergreen flavor that the partridgeberry lacks. The richness and quality of this flavor, and whether the berry is something you want to savor or spit varies dramatically depending on exposure to sunlight and frost.

In their finest winter form, wintergreen berries are underrated and intriguing. This bright red berry stays crisp and fresh when other fruits of the forest are long rotten, offering a zesty burst of woodland flavor to enliven the darkest winter day.

By |January 17th, 2017|Wildcrafting, Wintergreen|Comments Off on Wintergreen: The Hardy Wild Breath Mint|

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.

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