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.