Hedgehog Mushroom

Mountain Kings

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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.

Hedgehog Mushroom: The Safer Chanterelle

Ari holds hedgehog mushrooms found on a recent foray in Vermont.

The woods are full of teeth right now – not only is lion’s mane starting to ferociously flush, but hedgehogs are popping up along moist riverbeds and streams. Fall has arrived, at least in northern Vermont. 

The hedgehog, or sweet tooth, is perhaps the most foolproof to identify of all wild mushrooms. Its yellow to orange cap and fruity odor are reminiscent of its summer-fruiting relative the golden chanterelle, but its tooth-covered underside distinguishes it from potential look-alikes. Beginning foragers often confuse the chanterelle for the poisonous jack-o’-lantern, which has free, parallel gills as opposed to attached, forked gills. Distinguishing between different gill types can be daunting for novices, but it is far easier to tell teeth from gills.

Thus, hedgehogs are an excellent confidence builder for beginners – as long as the mushroom you have found has a yellow to orange cap and many toothbrush-like teeth on the underside, you have yourself a hedgehog.

As you scour the woods for splashes of yellow, you might also come across another fall-fruiting chanterelle relative – the smooth chanterelle. Like the hedgehog, the smooth chanterelle tastes every bit as good as its celebrated relative the golden chanterelle. Though not quite as foolproof as the singular hedgehog, the smooth chanterelle’s barely wrinkled underside makes it a better bet than the golden chanterelle for beginners.

Once you understand the fruiting habits of the chanterelle clade, you are unlikely to confuse any of them for jacks. Chanterelles and hedgehogs are mycorrhizal fungi that may produce solitary fruit or pairs of two, often arranged in loosely scattered bands or arcs that go far beyond the host tree. I have seen massive chanterelle and hedgehog flushes, but the fruiting habit is more like a loose gold-threaded carpet than a dense clump. If you see a dense clump or tight cluster of “chanterelles,” do not eat unless you are seeking a violent 36-hour purge!

Luckily, you can enjoy hedgehogs without fear. There are two different species of hedgehog, which I refer to as “the little ones” (Hydnum umbilicatum) and “the big ones” (Hydnum repandum). The distinction is immaterial to the forager, since both species are equally delicious, offering a slightly earthier, smokier take on the chanterelle’s trademark apricot flavor. Of course, the bigger the hedgehog, the bigger the meal – Hydnum repandum can be as big as a portabella, while Hydnum umbilicatum typically has a quarter-sized cap. 

So, fledgling foragers, don’t worry about chanterelles for now. This fall, stick to the unmistakable hedgehog!

The cap and toothed underside of hedgehog mushrooms.

ForageCast: Week of August 15, 2011

Not many mushrooms up here, but you can't beat the view! Summit of Champlain Mountain in Acadia National Park.

As much as I have been enjoying this summer’s catch of shrimp russulas and lobster mushrooms, there’s nothing like a freshly picked Maine lobster. Ithaca’s gorges sure are gorgeous, but when we got time off work, Jenna and I decided to leave our landlocked town and head for the salty coast. So, we apologize for not updating the ForageCast the past couple weeks, but we are back just in time.

After a prolonged dry spell, rains are returning to the Northeast, bringing mushrooms with them. Today on my walk to work I spotted a hefty clump of jack o’lanterns fruiting at the base of an oak tree. I didn’t quite rejoice about finding a bushel of mushrooms capable of sending me into profound gastric distress, but the jack o’lanterns were a good sign that another round of chanterelles is on its way, too. August is peak mushroom season, so now that the rains are back all sorts of colorful characters may start decorating the forest floor. Keep an eye out for the hedgehog, or sweet tooth mushroom, which resembles a golden chanterelle until you turn it over and find that the bottom is covered in whitish teeth. The hedgehog tastes similar to a chanterelle, and is even safer to ID because of its distinctive toothed underside. Let me know if you see any hedgehogs in the woods!

Northeastern ForageCast for the week of August 15, 2011!

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