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ForageCast: Chanterelles, Boletes and their Brethren

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It rains as I write, a good slow and steady soak that is sure to summon great flushes of gourmet and medicinal fungi. After a dry start to the summer season, golden chanterelles and boletes – from painted to porcini – are poking their familiar faces up from the warm July soil.

Boletes and chanterelles can be divine, but these charismatic fungi should not be mistaken for beginner species.

The jack-o’-lantern is a common, highly poisonous mushroom that is all-too-easily confused for the supremely edible (once cooked) chanterelle. Though not deadly for healthy adults, a jack-o’-lantern dinner is likely to leave you clinging to the toilet bowl for well over 24 hours. The differences between jacks and chanterelles are obvious to experienced foragers, but can be indiscernible to beginners. Once you can have mastered recognition of the golden chanterelle’s attached, forking gills and scattered fruiting habit, you can enjoy a handful of equally delicious, vibrantly colored chanterelle relations as well.

Boletes, pored fungi that grow in mycorrhizal association with plants, are generally safer than gilled mushrooms. No North American boletes are recognized as deadly, but this can lend beginners a false sense of security. Boletes are fairly simple to ID to genus, but identifying to species can vary from straightforward to extremely difficult without microscope and spore print. There are myriad North American boletes known to be edible, a handful of which rank among the most exquisite and savory of all wild mushrooms (such as the Boletus edulis group). There also are “edible” (ie non-poisonous) boletes that are repulsively bitter, and mild-flavored boletes that are highly toxic. Be weary of any blanket rules – you have to know each mushroom, in all its nuance and wild glory.

I had an inspiring morel season, but the June mushrooming dry spell has left me craving the persistence, passion, and abundance of the peak season mushroom hunt. We have not seen peak yet, but I anticipate promising conditions and invigorating surprises for our guided forays this coming weekend!

ForageCast for the next two weeks!

ForageCast for the next two weeks!

Mountains of Morels

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Three of the 300 morels

It was 11am, and our morel count for the day had already topped 300. We were not hunting the mighty burns out West, nor were we in the Midwest’s exceptionally fertile morel grounds. My guide, a gracious and seasoned hunter with a keen instinct towards ecological patterns, had led me to a mystery Vermont morel motherlode.

Discovering such epic patches requires an intimate understanding of soil, pitch, tree identification, region, timing, and other mysterious factors. Fortunately my guide knew exactly where we were heading as we scrambled through the dense undergrowth.

After climbing steeply uphill through brambles and downed branches, we arrived at the periphery of the hunting grounds. My chest reeled with adrenaline as I spotted the first trio of spectacular yellows. Morel hunting, which had always seemed thoroughly unpredictable and menacingly difficult in the Northeast, became delightfully abundant as our gaze fell from one morel to the next cluster. My morel eyes were on, for they had to be. This experience was not to be missed.

The whole cast of characters was present, including jaw-dropping and sprawling flushes of blacks, yellows, and two different false morels – Verpa bohemica, with cottony interior, and Gyromitra esculenta, with wrinkly, convoluted interior. Eating either of these falsies is strongly ill-advised.

My guide had informed me that this patch was one of dozens of comparable, even better, patches he had found throughout the last four years. I had only the morning to hunt, but just before 5pm, he let me know that he had found an additional couple hundred large yellows after I left. Not bad.

I have hillside porcini patches, yellowfoot bogs and black trumpet carpets, and with most foraging species, I see a method to the madness, clear patterns and predictable fruitings. But with morels, I have known only modest patches. I have enjoyed some delectable morels over the years, but the only time I found over 100, I soon thereafter realized the patch was adjacent to a contaminated superfund site.

Today the morels were from pristine forests deep in the rich woods, spilling out from trees by the dozen. These were some of the most generous trees I had ever seen. Many expert foragers I know report finding 100-200 morels in a strong season. Today, 100 became a marker for a good hour, rather than a good year of morel hunting. In the world of my guide, who has seemingly cracked the New England morel code, morels are everywhere, and new potential patches lie around each forested corner.

Upon arriving home, it wasn’t long before our daughter Eliana took interest, and reached into the bag to pull a nice selection of yellows, grays, and one black for the cast iron pan. I can report that their flavor, after a seven-minute sauté with butter and thinly sliced ramp bulbs, was divine.

Morel Mind

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It is the ultimate forager’s dilemma. After miles of hunting, you spot your first morel of the season, a pristine yellow. You yelp gleefully, smile uncontrollably, reach down to feel its cool flesh in your palm.  You reach for your pocketknife as you prepare to harvest it from the sandy spring soil.

And then, you spot the dog shit. Not just one turd, but two – not quite touching your prize, but undeniably too close for comfort. What’s a good forager to do?

It’s not easy, but you have to leave that morel in the ground, just as I did Wednesday night after discovering a morel at my favorite childhood swimming hole and dog run. The nuances of terroir are a beautiful thing, but the terroir of turd (or arsenic, for that matter) is simply not worth sampling.

If the problem is just a piece of poop, at least you have discovered fertile hunting ground, and you can bushwhack beyond the fray where you may find more morels without the baggage. If the problem is widespread contamination, well, at least you have gotten some good practice using your forager’s eyes. By a mysterious law of nature, once you have seen one morel, your odds of finding a new patch increase exponentially. You gain a newfound confidence, a heightened awareness of morel habitat and fruiting patterns. You have developed Morel Mind.

Morels are exquisitely wild, yet they have a penchant for colonizing disturbed ground, from the great burns out West to New England’s craggy (and often lead-laden) old apple orchards. Morels love roadsides, poison ivy, and treated wood chips as much as they love wilderness and ancient elm and ash trees.

As foragers, we know exactly where our food is coming from. I don’t buy morels at the grocery store, for there is limited quality control. Foraging is the art of finding the freshest seasonal wild foods, harvesting with an ethic of long-term stewardship, studying the nuances of place and the ecological history of the landscape, and cooking them with a sensitivity to the essence of each wild ingredient. Knowing your mushrooms means knowing the land from which they fruit.

ForageCast: Morels in the Month of May

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With only a sliver of sunlight left in the sky, I head for the hills in search of spring’s most coveted wild delicacy. Soon I find myself on hand and knee, scouring the soil beneath a giant ash as my setter howls madly into the twilight. I see a morel menagerie – plump and pickable blacks, yellows, and half-frees – in my mind’s eye, but my fingers find only leaf litter and hollowed acorns on the forest floor. I am hunting with my hands as much as my eyes, as the day grows dim and a silver crescent rises in the mid-May sky.

Suddenly I feel something cool, squishy, wrinkled, spongy, fresh and full of potential. My grip tightens as I pluck this vital object from the forest floor and raise it to my face for closer inspection. I did not need my flashlight – one rancid whiff was all it took to know this was no morel. It may have been a false morel, swallowed nearly whole (and regurgitated in similar form) by an unsuspecting mammal. It may have been something less exotic, a mere dog turd or hairball. Alas, we shall never know, for my repulsion trumped my curiosity as I flung this foreign object into the night. Some things are better left unidentified.

Morel madness is again taking the region by storm, as daytime highs in the mid-60s and rain-soaked nights summon these thoroughly wild and undeniably delicious fungi. Our 2016 workshop season kicks off next Saturday, May 21, with a double header at The Nature Museum in Grafton, Vermont, followed by a Sunday double header at Green Mountain Audubon in Huntington. These workshops, which are nearly sold out, will offer a new format as we learn how to safely, ethically, and fruitfully wildcraft culinary and medicinal spring greens, roots, shoots, fruits and, of course, mushrooms.

Northeastern ForageCast for the month of May!

By |May 11th, 2016|ForageCast, Morels|Comments Off on ForageCast: Morels in the Month of May|

Rejuvenating Reishi Ginger Tea

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A fresh coat of snow has fallen upon last fall’s forgotten reishi (Ganoderma tsugae). Clinging to the thick trunks of hemlock trees, these eye-catching, medicinal polypores are the rotting reminders of a prodigious crop. Reishi mushrooms become unusable with the first hard frost, sometimes going rancid as early as June when the slugs and beetles have their way.

Fortunately, we have a fresh batch of reishi tincture in our larder, as well as dried reishi slices for tea. Today I simmered several slices of reishi along with grated ginger, adding just enough honey to cut the bitterness of the adaptogenic mushrooms and let their umami notes shine.

If your pantry is not stocked with the surplus of summer, reishi season will be here again before long, and you can scout likely host trees even in the depths of winter.

Look for white slivers of fleshy new growth on hemlocks in May, which make a mild, nutty sauté but should be left to mature for medicinal use. I typically wait until the end of June to harvest for medicine, once the white growing tips have thinned and the conks have developed a bold, lacquered gradient of color. Be aware that a heavy June rain can summon legions of hungry and industrious slugs – the timing of reishi harvest is a subtle art.

Note that our primary Northeastern reishi species is the hemlock varnish shelf (Ganoderma tsugae), but the less hardy Ganoderma lucidum is widely distributed on hardwoods east of the Rockies. Also look out for the rarer, yellower Ganoderma curtisii on hardwoods from Massachusetts to Nebraska, and Ganoderma oregense on Northwestern conifers.

All reishi species are potent healers, warding off sickness and bringing the body into balance. A double extraction tincture is the best way to capture the full spectrum of water and alcohol soluble constituents, but a cup of reishi ginger tea is always welcome medicine for a dark winter night.

reishi ginger teaHere’s what you’ll need to make a batch of reishi ginger tea for two: 

  • 3 grams dried reishi mushroom (25 grams if fresh)
  • 3 grams fresh ginger, grated or minced
  • 1-2 tablespoons of honey
  • About 5 cups water

Bring a pot of water to a boil. Turn down to the lowest heat and slowly simmer the reishi for 30 minutes, adding additional water as needed. Add the grated ginger, and let simmer another 5-10 minutes. Strain with a fine mesh. Add the honey and stir. Pour into your favorite mugs and taste the rich, slightly bitter, mushroomy essence of the forest.

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