Not Too Shabby for a Somewhat Lackluster Season of Foraging
Firstly, let me apologize for my absence from this column all summer. I was beginning to feel like my findings were a bit redundant with last year’s. After all, I spend my season on an isolated 120 acre peninsula which does boast a remarkably diverse ecosystem, however after romping around the hills several times a week, summer after summer, I begin to feel like I’ve seen it all. And that’s a pretty cavalier position for an amateur mycologist to make. One of the most remarkable, always surprising aspects about fungi is how well traveled they can be, since their vehicle of reproduction- their spores- are so resilient and transient that they can traverse great distances and survive harsh climates. So, new mushrooms, in theory, can pop up any where at any time. Add to this the wide array of environmental factors and the mushroom’s ephemeral nature, so really any small plot of forested land could host an amazing display of fungal diversity.
I certainly made some pretty weird discoveries of non-edible mushrooms this summer. In mid July I found a big honking veiled stinkhorn with a vulgur, phallic look complete with foreskin and slimy, wet cap.
All the more repulsive since it was covered in flies and a particular type of fungus loving true bug. This family of fungus spreads its spores by attracting insects with its rotten scent. Quite the scene! I also found a quite deadly mushroom growing right behind my cabin, a poison pax, which at first blush looked like an oyster mushroom.
As far the usual suspects- the early season yielded its usual scant amount of morels. They favor trees that are not abundant in my parts. Chicken-of-the-woods popped up early in June and I was foolish not to collect some, figuring that such an early appearance would mean a bountiful summer. Wrong I was, I did not find another until the weather cooled off a bit in late August. I imagine they are flushing more eadily now with sustained cooler temps. Oysters were the big producer this summer, nearly every week I would find a cluster on a dead log, deep in the woods and right in the backyard. In July I pulled in over four pounds on one forage. I was able to cook up several dozen tacos with hem for my fellow campers sautéed with ancho chiles, garlic chives, and mint from our garden. Pretty darned tasty. I never tire of oysters’ light vegetal flavor and slight crunch. My biggest mushroom score of the summer actually came from a very generous gift from a friend.
He has a cabin a few hours inland from us in central Michigan and has found several productive patches of chanterelle mushrooms near his place. So many in fact, that he gave me a few dozen, which I savored over a couple of weeks (they keep quite well). It was actually my first experience cooking with them, as they fetch such high prices at markets and I’ve never been lucky enough to find them in my parts. I just love their pleasant chew and delicate, yet earthy bouquet. I enjoyed them most sautéed in butter and eaten on home baked bread. Thanks Paavo!
Late summer proved to get pretty interesting in terms of new edible finds. I didn’t find a whole lot of boletes this season,, but then right at the end of my stay in the woods, in the courtyard of the building in which I work, a magnificent flush of bright sulfur-yellow Chicken Fat Suillus Suillus americanus) popped up. I had not found these in several years and the last time I had foraged some, I was not quite as intrepid in my willingness to eat new species, so this year was the first time I cooked with them. The caps have an off-putting wet stickiness, but once you get past that they have quite a nice buttery flavor. I hear they dry quite nicely as well, as do other boletes. Oh and I did find a solitary Old-man-of-the-woods which I had enjoyed in abundance last year. I am still kicking myself that I did not sample some of the very prominent Parasol mushrooms (Macrolepiota procera) growing around my place. What a beautiful creature, this species with its three to four inch diameter cap and up to nine inch tall elegant stem which displays snake-skin like patterning. By the time I had positively ID’d it through its spore print, the flush was past its prime. I was also somewhat chicken to start sampling Lepiota mushrooms, which is a family that contains several poisonous species. If I find these again, I’m gonna cook ‘em.
Near the very end of my tenure in the woods, I actually found chanterelles, deep in the woods in my favorite foraging spot, a marshy area populated by virgin oaks. Peaking up through the leaf litter were hard-to-miss-despite-their-tininess, were bright crimson, Cinnabar chanterelles (Cantharellus cinnabarinus). I collected a scant handful of these guys which are teensy weensy, like maybe an inch tall with a cap smaller than a dime. They got tossed in with a collection of other foraged mushrooms for a celebratory, end-of-summer pizza that I shared with my entire staff. That pie boasted seven species in all. Not too shabby for a somewhat lackluster seeming season of foraging. And the good news is that its nearly prime season for fungal abundance. I will be spending some long weekends back in the woods later this month and I promise to report back!