In some countries, foraging for wild mushrooms is akin to going fishing here in the states. Still, long -time enthusiasts and a growing number of novice foodies are flocking to wild mushroom workshops. To try to better understand what fuels the foraging passion, we take an expedition in the hills of Western Massachusetts.
On one of this summer’s most beautiful afternoons, with the air washed by a recent heavy rainfall, about a dozen of us meet in a parking lot in Leverett. Before we take off our guides Ari Rockland-Miller and his wife Jenna Antonino Demare hand out something they call a Northeastern Foragecast, a cheat sheet detailing which wild mushrooms we are likely to see at this point in the season. I asked Jenna how she got into the wild mushroom business.
“We started this as really a hobby about four or five years ago,” she says. “A friend suggested to us that we start a mushroom foraging blog. Ari was talking our friend’s ear off. He was talking my ear off about mushrooms. And so our friend suggested we start a blog. I said, ‘What’s a blog?’ And so, anyways, that’s how the Mushroom Forager really blossomed.”
And we’re off – finding a batch of oyster mushrooms pretty quickly, which Jenna says are notable by their aroma.
“I find that they have a very distinctive anise smell which I use as an ID feature,” she says. “And even these rotting ones I think have it very faintly.”
I passed on the smell-the-rotting-mushrooms-moment. But with names like Lion’s Mane, King stropharia and Black trumpet, there is something exotic about wild mushrooms. Still, for the entirely inexperienced forager -like me – there’s something scary about it, too. After all, tales of the poisonous varieties are mythic. Ari acknowledges the dangerous reputation, but then comforts us.
“I don’t think you should have to get poisoned as part of your learning curve,” he says. “So, it’s not an intrinsic risk. You can avoid it and before you ever eat anything, you gotta just make sure you’re 100 percent sure. And there’s a big difference between 100 percent and 99 percent. Once you get to that 100 percent confidence level, you’ll know it.”
As we wind our way through the woods, Ari and Jenna scout for mushrooms and answer questions.
“So, when you’re harvesting do you not want to take everything?” asks one of the workshop participants.
“Yeah,” Ari answers, “So we’re very mindful about sustainable harvest and not taking everything. Mushrooms are a fruit. They’re not the organism. So the mycelium, which is under the soil, is the organism itself. So, it’s more analogous to picking an apple off of a tree than it is to uprooting a tree when you harvest a mushroom.”
And, as if finding out that mushrooms are a fruit isn’t surprising enough, Ari says many mushrooms that we think are totally different are really just one type morphing into another.
“Portobello, Cremini and Button mushrooms are all the same species, they’re just different stages,” he says. “Button is the smallest and the Portabella is more mature. Also even the same mushroom under different environmental conditions, like if it gets different amounts of light or different temperature or different CO2 levels, can look different.”
Seriously? Who knew? About a half hour into our adventure the group starts to get chatty. Jennifer Wallace tells me she’s here because her partner loves wild mushrooms.
“She has forged and found things in the woods that I’ve said, ‘No way. I’m not eating that.’ But she insists they’re good. So now if I get a little more education I might be more brave,” Wallace says.
I ask her is she’s eaten anything her partner’s found.
“Oh, sure, yeah. We ate a bunch of this one kind which is called Hen of the Woods or Chicken of the Woods or something,” she said. “And I spent the day with her with armloads of them bringing them home – grumbling. But, anyway, they ended up being good.”
One thing we see on the hike are the mushrooms varying shapes, sizes and colors. But to me, while I like mushrooms, they can taste kind of bland. So I asked Ari if each variety has a unique flavor.
“Very different. I’d say that their taste ranges as wildly as vegetables range in flavor or fruits. I mean, the Chanterelle – for example – has a singular apricot flavor and an almost floral or fruity aroma.”
But for somebody who doesn’t eat wild mushrooms, I ask him, are they gonna really know the difference? Ari doesn’t hesitate.
“I think even an amateur would be able to tell the difference,” he says.
At the end of the forage, Ari and Jenna share the day’s catch and people seem eager to get back out into the woods to hone their new skills. They’ll have plenty of time. Wild mushroom season has just begun, and in the Northeast goes well into September and October.