Mushroom Hunting The Extreme Sport of Foodies
In what other hobby do you have the fun of a treasure hunt, the beauty of nature, the geekiness of deep research, the discipline of detailed observation,the pleasure of dining on gourmet food, as well as an exercise regimen to work off those extra calories—for free?
I think that hunting mushrooms is a wonderful activity. Of course, all this delight doesn’t come without its challenges. As we all know, some species can be deadly. But so can crossing the street. When I was small, my mother taught me how to hunt mushrooms, how to distinguish the good mushrooms from the not-so-good. Just like crossing the street, you can learn how to be safe.
First, there’s a reason it’s called “hunting” rather than “picking”. You’ll need to actively search for these sometimes elusive organisms. Mushrooms are not plants or animals—they are a third life form called fungus. They have their own unique growth patterns, and they fruit at different times, places, and under certain conditions.The Hudson Valley is a great place to hunt, with many different types of habitats and felicitous weather conditions.
Next, you can’t get poisoned by merely touching a toxic mushroom. It’s true that we have a few deadly varieties in this area but they must be eaten to kill. There are more delicious edible species growing here. If you want to gather for the table, first learn the delicious species and the deadly species. Don’t eat anything unless you know for sure.
Forget any adages or folk wisdom about how to sort edible mushrooms from toxic ones—none of them are dependable.There are very few generalizations you can make about mushrooms—they’re fascinatingly unique.
Also, it’s good to know that collecting mushrooms doesn’t harm the parent organism. Like apples on a tree, mushrooms are the fruit of the fungus itself, which exists (usually as a thready white mass) in the soil or wood from which the mushrooms grow.
TO BEGIN A HUNT YOU'LL WANT TO HAVE:
• comfortable hiking or walking shoes;
• a pocket knife, or even a
plastic disposable knife;
• a wide basket or paper shopping bag;
• some small and medium-sized paper bags
(mushrooms turn to slime in plastic);
• some small wax paper bags are great
for separate specimens; and
• a guide book or two, or access to the Internet.
Take a walk in a natural area—an old mixed forest with lots of moss is a good place to start. Look for fungus on the forest floor, on dead wood, and on the sides of trees. When you find an interesting mushroom use your knife to carefully unearth the base of mushroom. Put your specimen in a little bag, and remember or make a note of what it’s growing on—forest floor, dead wood, living wood, mulch, or whatever.
When you return from your walk you can study your finds. You’ll want to lay them out under good light. A hand lens is useful to see details. Group the mushrooms by physical characteristics; this will help you learn to observe differences and similarities. Learn how to make a spore print by placing a cap on paper until it drops its spore or seed. Try to match your mushrooms with photos and descriptions in guides.
There are two books I recommend for beginners. Mushrooming Without Fear, by Alexander Schwab, Introduces a limited number of varieties that can be safely identified and eaten by beginners. You could learn only these mushrooms and be a happy hunter. The complement is the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms, by Gary Lincoff, which contains most of the species of mushrooms you are ever likely to find. Both are available at your local public library.
Two great websites are David Kuo’s www.mushroomexpert.com and Professor Tom Volk’s http://botit.botany.wisc.edu/toms_fungi/. Also available are several iPhone aps that use hyperlinks to help quickly identify mushrooms—the best one, Fungi, is only $1.99 and is fun to use.
There’s also a fantastic local group dedicated to the study of mushrooms, the Mid-Hudson Mycological Association. Joining a group like this is the quickest way to learn a lot about mushrooms. Expert members can help you make identifications as well as search out varying habitats. The MHMA can be found online at www.midhudsonmyco.org and on Facebook (search “midhudsonmyco”). They welcome beginners.
The appreciation of the important role of fungus in our environment is really in its infancy. A great mat of fungi underlies much of the earth we live on. It’s only now that science understands that, far from being the parasite once thought, most fungi have symbiotic relationships with other life forms—there are many organisms that can’t exist without them. Count me in!
Delicious Black Trumpets are a type of chanterelle and grow throughout our region in July and August.
They may be hard to spot on the forest floor, but they are one of the most easy to identify, once you know what to look for, with no toxic look-alikes. And luckily, when you find one there are likely to be more.
Puffballs are another easy to identify species and they are sometimes enormous! They can
be found from early summer into autumn in meadows and on lawns.
Morels are a delicious early spring mushroom. Look in old apple orchards and under tulip trees and dying elms. Lisa Jessup, Director of Common Ground Farm in Beacon, happily shows off a couple of prime examples of Yellow Morels.
Bear’s Head mushrooms are beautiful. They don’t have a lot of flavor, but make up for it in texture.
Shiitake-like honey mushrooms are sometimes found in profusion, but it takes an experienced mushroomer to distinguish them from poisonous varieties. Remember, eat only mushrooms you have identified as edible using authoritative guides.
Delicious Summer Mushrooms To Look For In The Hudson Valley:
Chicken Mushrooms (Laetiporus sulphureus)
Black Trumpets (Craterellus fallax)
Cinnabar Chanterelles (Cantherellus cinnabarinus)
Golden Chanterelles (Cantherellus cibarius)
Porcini, aka King Boletes (Boletus edulis)
Lobster Mushrooms (Hypomyces lactiflourum)
Puffballs (Calvatia species)
Oyster Mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus)
Hedgehog Mushrooms (Hydnum repandum)
Bear’s Head Mushroom (Hericium coralloides)
Honey Mushrooms (Armillaria mellea)
by Maria Reidelbach