ForageCast: Mycelial Memories

Ari contemplating a parasol mushroom.

Ari contemplating a parasol mushroom.

Every October as the wild mushroom season nears its inevitable end, a feeling of desperation sets in as I scramble to get out and collect the last of the harvest. My approach to foraging, usually patient and calculated, becomes decidedly more frantic as I find myself sprinting from oak to oak, fueled by visions of a well-stocked larder. As I check each and every oak for a roosting hen, I envision Thanksgiving turkey stuffed with maitake and lion’s mane – the grandeur of the harvest illuminating the darkest days.

We have grown spoiled, numbed, by the fossil-fueled supermarket and its endless supply of mediocre and chemically-laden produce. Perhaps it is just a primitive reflex, a relic of my hunter-gatherer heritage, but as we enter October I am beset by an instinct to hunt, harvest and preserve before I hunker down aside the woodstove and sip on chaga tea.

Sometimes my late season hunts have been wildly productive – a matsutake revelation, a maitake on Main Street, a beech graveyard and a lion’s mane lair. Back in Ithaca, New York – hen and lion country – the sheer volume of the fall harvest could be staggering. We lived like mushroom kings, savoring cream of maitake soup and hosting tasting parties to share the panoply of fall flavors – earthy, nutty, buttery, fishy, fruity, floral, herbal, umami.

This fall I have been busy training a fledgling forager, one who has not yet graduated to solid foods but already gazes out at the forest with the whimsy of a woodland sprite. As I stroll down a sandy riverbank, past honeys, late-fall oysters and turkey tails, I am quiet and contemplative as I reflect on a year marked by the loss of one family member and the birth of another. The mycelium beneath my feet, a vast and enigmatic web connecting life and death, silently readies itself for winter.

Northeastern ForageCast for the next two weeks!

Northeastern ForageCast for the next two weeks!

ForageCast: Fall Feast

IMG_2112With crispy autumn leaves underfoot and newly naked branches overhead, we took the little one to climb her first mountain. Winter is the longest season in Vermont, a sprawling and frigid affair, and autumn the most ephemeral. But when the leaves are peaking, and the harvest heavy, we are overwhelmed by abundance and undaunted by the coming cold.

After a prolonged dry spell, the recent rain will give foragers one last chance to find fall favorites like hedgehogs, yellowfoot chanterelles, matsutake, maitake, and lion’s mane. Even the most conspicuous fungi are hard to spot beneath the freshly fallen leaves, so the fall forager must rely on an intuitive knowledge of the landscape to guide her gaze. Subtle cues, from the age of the forest to the structure of the soil, can make the difference between an empty basket and a full frying pan.

I look at baby Eliana, riding in the snuggly with Mama, her wide eyes fixed on the canopy of beech. Those eyes seem to be absorbing everything, missing nothing. It occurs to me that a forager’s eyes are not unlike a child’s eyes, forever open and awaiting the next surprise. Foraging is, fundamentally, the art of seeing.

And even on this dry October afternoon, I see a cluster of lion’s mane on a downed beech right along the path. Just a little lion, but pristine and fresh, and accompanied by several others flashing their pearly white teeth. I leave the emergent pink fungi to ripen in the log’s cavities, and pick just enough for Jenna to make an all-local fall feast – pan seared chicken breast topped with poblano peppers and caramelized  shallots, served with a winter squash stuffed with lion’s mane and a side of roasted Brussels sprout tops. Behold the harvest!

ForageCast - 10-12-11

Northeastern ForageCast for the next two weeks!

ForageCast: Golden Hours

Golden Hours - Chanterelles

I’m eating black raspberries for breakfast, watching them turn from ruby red to a luscious purple as they ripen under the summer sun. Nothing summons memories of summers past like the blackcap – my favorite bramble. My tongue tingles as their zingy burst of flavor finishes with dark, mysterious cloves.

Papa LoveJust overhead, the staghorn sumac’s Dr. Seussian fruits are nearly ready for sumac lemonade. Completing the feast, wild alpine strawberries – compact bundles of strawberry essence – are ripening as the last of their cultivated cousins ferment in the fields.

The July sun is beating down as I wander beyond the periphery and into the damp forest. A destroying angel welcomes me into the woods, and my eyes begin to scan the ground for golden streaks. My yellow eyes are on, and they are finding me the season’s first fly agarics, ochre Russulas, and crown-tipped corals, along with a fragrant fistful of dense, bug-free chanterelles.

The colorful cast of summer fungi has arrived, and the woods are growing wetter and more alive with each passing thunderstorm. Baby Eliana Mina is here too, though for now she is spending more time in the bassinet than in the backwoods. Soon, she will ride in the snuggly and join us as we delight in the abundance of summer.

Northeastern ForageCast for the upcoming week!

Northeastern ForageCast for the next two weeks!

ForageCast: Morels, with a Side of Arsenic

© Monica Donovan via 2013 photo shoot with Ari and Jenna

This proud forager has a confession to make – the closest I’ve come to a morel this spring was inadvertently stepping on a lone Gyromitra esculenta. It was a gruesome site, too – the convoluted, wrinkly flesh squished like a false morel pancake on the ground.

Up here in northern Vermont, peak morel season is only beginning. Veteran local forager Moore Mushrooms reported the region’s first black morel on May 7, but blondes are just starting to ripen this week. We were rained on heavily last weekend, and this week we have been blessed with the type of stunning, seasonal weather that summons morels and mosquitoes alike. Ramps are retreating, as Jack-in-the-pulpit, trout lily, trillium, and yellow lady’s slipper orchids bring sumptuous splashes of color to the sylvan stage.

But the big game is hiding in the shadows, at least for now. This is my third spring in Vermont, but as far as the morels are concerned, I am still a flatlander, a fledgling. I have an epic Vermont ramp patch, a chanterelle goldmine, even a riverside matsutake stronghold.

A good morel patch, however, can take years to find. Last spring I thought I had found my honey hole, a spectacular showing that made me feel like a morel millionaire. But as much as I love morels, I prefer them without a side of arsenic. My morel Mecca, it turned out, was uncomfortably close to a superfund site. And so it goes.

How does it feel, you might ask, to return your hard-earned treasure to the dank May ground? I submit to you that it feels better than suffering arsenic poisoning. While classic mycorrhizal fungi like chanterelles, black trumpets, and porcini tend to favor pristine woodland habitats, morels often pop up from disturbed ground. The well-known affinity of yellow morels for old apple orchards is particularly concerning. Fruit trees were routinely sprayed with lead arsenate throughout the 20th century, until it was replaced by the equally unsavory DDT in the ’50s and ultimately banned from orchards in 1988.

More research is needed to determine the extent to which morels and other fungi uptake heavy metals from contaminated soils. In the mean time, my quest for a pristine and plentiful Vermont morel patch continues.

ForageCast - 5-14-12

Northeastern ForageCast through mid-June!

ForageCast: Season’s End

Matsutake 2013

Frostbitten reishi and morsels of maitake still sit in paper bags in my refrigerator – the last vestiges of an abundant foraging season.

I hike my red setter underneath the towering hemlocks on our land, the air heavy with the musty spice of red-hot candies as he smashes into frozen white matsutake. These regal fungi lose value as soon as they break free of their silky partial veils, but specimens that elude the forager’s knife blade can reach epic proportions before they meet their frosty fate.

In southern New England and coastal microclimates, foragers are still filling their baskets with hens, honeys, abortive entolomas, oysters, porcini, matsutake, manes (shaggy and lion’s), and other hardy fall fruiters. More intrepid foragers are harvesting Central Park big laughing gyms by the handful. 

We can thank the mycophilic Japanese for whimsical common names like maitake – the dancing mushroom; matsutake – the pine mushroom; and waraitake – the laughing mushroom. As the story goes, the laughing mushroom’s unusual properties were discovered when a formal Japanese dinner party went awry after the hosts inadvertently served waraitake. Soon, the hostess had stripped off her kimono and the party devolved into riotous laughter.  

Meanwhile, in Vermont I am hardly laughing as I slip on sheets of ice while carrying the woodstove ashes out to the compost. The mushrooms are all but gone, with the exception of ultra-hardy velvet foots (enokitake), brick caps, and late-fall oysters.

Yet it was a glorious season – only my second in Vermont – and I garnered new spots that should produce chanterelles, yellow-foots, and other mycological delicacies for years to come. The trees have lost their leaves, and chaga is now easy to spot against the bare birch branches. There is already a sprinkling of snow in the mountains, and the mycelium is taking a well-deserved rest.

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