Wild mushroom hunting can thrill you, or kill you

June 16, 1992|By John Gierach | John Gierach,New York Times News Service

It was good, honest, heartfelt fear that had kept me from hunting wild mushrooms until a few seasons ago. I knew that the right mushrooms were delicious -- I'd eaten some that were gathered by people I trusted in such matters -- but I also knew that the wrong ones can kill you or make you wish they had.

Wild mushroom hunting seemed like the culinary equivalent of sky diving: great fun unless something went wrong.

And the accidents really do happen, although maybe not as often as we're led to believe.

We've all heard the story about the famous chef who served misidentified mushrooms, killing himself and all of his dinner guests. That actually happened, but if you hear it enough times, it begins to seem like hundreds of chefs and thousands of guests, all dead.

In any case, it's said that there are only two kinds of mushroomers who get into trouble: those who know nothing and those who think they know everything.

That's mushroom humor, which tends to be dry.

Most of the general books on wild edibles will tell you not to mess with mushrooms unless you're already an expert, which leaves you feeling a little lost. It's like interviewing for that first job after high school and being told you don't have enough experience.

A guidebook to mushrooms seems considerably more helpful until you come to the disclaimer (it will be repeated at least five times), where neither the author nor the publisher accepts any responsibility for what might happen if you actually eat one of these things.

The guidebooks are a little more realistic: They tell you to consult an expert, although they don't tell you how to find one.

This is all entirely reasonable, I think. There are poisonous, inedible or psychedelic mushrooms that are at least similar to some edible ones. There are ugly mushrooms that are good to eat and real pretty ones that will kill you. The common names don't always help much either. For instance, a "warty deathcap" is, as you'd suspect, poisonous, but then so is a "forest friend."

In the real world of amateur mycology, you end up finding a guru; someone who has collected, properly identified and eaten certain mushrooms and who is alive and well. You also want someone who exhibits what seems like the proper degree of caution. An expert is not just anyone you can get to say: "Sure, go ahead and eat 'em."

The man who is teaching me about mushrooms has hunted them for years, belongs to an amateur mycological society, speaks some Latin, knows how to take spore prints (the only way to be absolutely sure of some mushrooms), and doesn't eat unfamiliar mushrooms that he hasn't fully researched and then double-checked with one of his gurus.

When I bring him mushrooms to check for me, he looks at each one instead of just glancing into the bag.

I now feel that I know how to identify four species of locally common mushroom well enough to eat them. They are easy ones where the presence of a number of diagnostic marks mean they can't be anything else. But I will not go into that in detail because neither I nor the newspaper want to take any responsibility for what you might do with the information.

Wild mushrooms can be as spooky as trout and, as with trout fishing, locating the critters and then catching them in the right mood is more than half the battle.

What we call a mushroom is really just the fruit of a much larger organism living unseen under the ground -- sort of like the apples on an apple tree.

A given kind of mushroom will appear at a certain time of the year in a certain kind of terrain under certain weather conditions, but not always, and not always in the same place. People sometimes talk about mushroom "gathering," but "hunting" seems to be the accepted term because that's what it feels like, both when you are successful and when you are not.

You can say the same thing about a mushroom that you can about a deer, grouse, or trout: It's a wild, edible thing that appears briefly at a time and place of its own choosing. A person with enough bio-regional awareness to predict that and the gumption to get off his or her butt and go look can get some of the finest, purest, best tasting food that exists anywhere.

To me, wild mushrooms, along with game and fish, are just another small link to the way things really are. This is all part of a lifestyle most of us cannot really call subsistence anymore, but that provides the same kind of satisfaction. I prefer to think of it as gourmet hunting and gathering.

Naturally, wild mushrooms go beautifully with wild game. Their taste is often described in terms of harmonious opposites: pungent but mild, earthy but subtle.

Mushrooms, like big morels, are often served by themselves or as a prominent part of a larger dish. Fresh oyster mushrooms are delicious sauteed in olive oil and garlic, sprinkled with goat cheese, and spread on fresh French bread.

But more often, wild mushrooms function in cooking as they do in nature. That is, they are largely hidden, but meaningful: part of the gravy for grouse paprika or deer stroganoff or elk spaghetti sauce. Not too many; just enough to tell you this is not ordinary, tame food.

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