The Promise of Fall
Autumn is the most bittersweet of seasons. A beautiful fall day spent enjoying perfect weather, beholding the spectacular display of the woods in full color is about as good as it gets. You can romp around the outdoors all day and then retreat to the comforts of home with a pot of something rib-sticking and soul satisfying slowly bubbling on the stove, filling the house with nostalgic aromas. But the light recedes, every day, in the morning and evening. We look back wistfully on the passing warm months, the frolicking reverie of summer, knowing that the northern wind’s bracing, icy grip is just weeks away. I always hated fall as a kid, getting herded back into the classroom, shut off from those wandering days. As an adult I’ve come to cherish its evocative memories and fleeting beauty. And above all autumn’s order in the natural cycle is what I find most compelling. Foraging for mushrooms has especially taught me to appreciate the fall. It reminds me that, no, the woods are not dying, merely transitioning and that there is a new cast of life that blossoms forth in the midst of the decay. In the spring, the hunt for morels is thrilling, but they’re the only true players of the early season. The summer is temperamental, but yields its surprises of oysters, chanterelles, and boletes. However, above all, the fall is the true king of mushrooming season.
I made one long weekend trip back up to Michigan this fall, around the third weekend in September, which is usually prime time for hen-of-the-woods and sometimes chicken-of-the-woods. The first half of the month had been quite dry though and I arrived in the middle of the major cool and rainy front, so it wasn’t the most productive time yet. The season was pretty weak overall for chicken, I saw a ton in June, then just a scant specimen here and there in late summer. And found none that fall weekend. The hens seemed like they were just starting, I found a couple in usual spots. One was large enough to harvest and a slug had just moved in, so I felt obliged to take it. I felt pretty ho-hum about my findings, compared to off-the-charts hauls of hens by the dozens of pounds in years past. Still, I brought home a nice chunk. Its still probably my favorite eating mushroom, I just love its deep umami and springy chew. I also found my first wild lion’s mane in several years (I grow them at home nowadays). They are a brilliant treat with their otherworldly look and delicate seafood flavor. I sautéed both the lion’s mane and the hen with butter and white wine for a simple pasta and then topped a pizza later in the week with the rest of the hen. My friends in the area fared a little better in early October, hen-wise. Like this summer, at least in the area where I forage most, it was a pretty underwhelming season for the usual suspects.
Later that same weekend I made an astonishing discovery, a log covered in pearlescent, very wet jelly-like fungus. Otherworldly and gorgeous. It was a gross-out thrill to poke at its slimy and jittery folds and I had a hunch it could be edible. I was hoping it was wood ear and ran down to the computer and field guides to ID. It lacked the distinct cup-like form of the wood ear, it was more brain like, feathery and folded. I identified it as Leafy jelly (Tremella foliacea), which like wood ear, is enjoyed in Asian cuisine but disregarded by most Western foragers as being tasteless. I thought it was worth a shot, so I gathered a bit, brought it home, and I gently poached a few slices. Sure, enough the mushroom had very little flavor and a gelatinous texture. It lacked the crunch of wood ear and had even less flavor. I decided to dry some to see if perhaps that would change its texture and I have yet to work with it. Very cool stuff to find and play with, nonetheless.
My biggest discoveries were made here in Illinois in woods with prohibitive laws that I shall not name. Firstly, worth mentioning is that I stumbled across a fantastic resource online a few weeks back, morels.com, which has regional forums for mushroom gatherers. The Southern Michigan board is kinda sleepy, but the Northern Illinois board is hopping with very serious foragers who avidly post about their findings. It’s kind of like the LTHForum for mushroom hunting and equally as addictive for one with this obsessive hobby. The folks on the board are rather nonchalant about discussing hunting on restricted lands and refreshingly pretty open about mentioning their favorite spots. I learned on the board and through my explorations in unsaid woods that there is a huge mushrooming culture in the Chicagoland area. Throughout my big day out in the woods in locations southwest of the city (actually my hometown) I saw other folks poking around the bases of trees with their sacks and pocket knives at the ready. I found evidence of a harvested chicken that was responsibly gathered, with the requisite 1/3 of the mushroom left intact to spread its spores.
I found astonishing things that day in those woods. When I was in London earlier this year I came across a fantastic wild mushroom stall at the Borough Market. Those folks had a big pile of gorgeous lavender hued cap and stem mushrooms called blewits. Unfortunately, we were staying at a hotel without cooking facilities, so I could only admire their visual beauty. I later read that they grow in North America and I became engrossed in the hope that someday I might find some. That day poking around old oaks searching for hens, I spotted the telltale blue violet color peaking out of the leaf litter. I brushed aside the leaves to find knobby fist-sized toadstools with lavender colored gills. I was almost certain what I had found, and pretty excited to find about a half a dozen at that. I doubled my score from the base of another oak and was a very happy forager. I took a spore print at home just to be safe, and they turned up pale pink and sure enough I had found Wood blewits (Clitocybe nuda). Like always cooking a new-to-me mushroom, I sautéed them in butter with a little salt and pepper. They exuded a bit of liquid, which comingled wonderfully with the butter, creating a silky gravy. With other mushrooms, I like to sauté them until I get a bit of caramelized color, letting the juices to evaporate and perhaps then deglazing the pan with wine or cream. However, after a little nibble of the blewit I appreciated its delicate texture and pulled them off the flame while they were tender and served them with their lovely juices aside a celeriac mash and roast chicken. One of the most remarkable mushrooms I have tasted, delicate with an anise note. Perfect with the mash.
Back to the woods- already giddy from the blewit score, I loosened up from my pensive, no-stone-unturned hunt mode and enjoyed a leisurely hike. Approaching a turn in the trail I spied the unmistakable bright white glow of globular Giant puffballs (Calvatia gigantean) across a ravine. No time to snake around the trail, I did a tightrope walker act across a fallen tree and scurried up the side of the ravine to find three human-head-sized puffballs. I took two out of three, observing the 2/3rds rule. Literally overstuffing two tote bags, I had now scored serious poundage. I owed a friend a favor, so I would gift one and keep one. Giant puffballs are somewhat common and have a mixed reputation as an edible, since it is quite delicately flavored. I had found some years ago in Maine, before I was a serious forager, and cooked up a chowder that was pretty good, but the mild mushrooms got somewhat lost in the creamy broth. I gave one of the puffballs and a handful of Blewits to my pal, Art Jackson of Pleasanthouse fame and took his lead on prepping the puffball. Coincidentally Art had received a cookbook from his mother a few days earlier, Connie Green’s “The Wild Table: Seasonal Foraged Food and Recipes”, which had a recipe for panfried puffball with a simple breading. After checking out Art’s pics of his creation on Twitter, I was sold. For brunch one morning I dipped sliced puffball in eggwash and then dredged in seasoned fresh breadcrumbs. I fried until golden and oh man, what a treat. The texture is very creamy, like tofu but drier. The savory mushroomy-ness is subtle but definitely present. With fresh bread and eggs it made a fine breakfast. The other half of the puffball was prepared similarly but covered in parmagiano reggiano and broiled for a sec., then served with sautéed rapini and a simple pasta pomodoro. Fantastic!
The season is over now for the most part. Fall oysters are still going and if I find time in the next few weekends, I might have a looksy. All said, I think my foraging days have wrapped up for another season. To recap, it was a big summer of oyster mushrooms, kind of light on the chickens and hens, but a very exciting and delicious fall full of new discoveries. I’ll be back when the tender buds of the forest floor begin to awaken and hopefully stumble across a morel or two.