I was raised, like most Americans, with a healthy fear of mushrooms instilled in me by my mother. Mum knew her wild plants, and loved to take us berry picking, but mushrooms were off limits. This was probably a good thing, because while many mushrooms may look like candy — some are more colorful than any skittle or sweet tart — even the edible ones don’t taste like candy. Well, maybe the candy cap does, but that doesn’t live where I grew up in New Jersey. And eating a pretty little mushroom can lead to a quick end to a budding forager’s career…
I didn’t even know there were edible wild mushrooms until I was a teenager, when our class went on a nature walk in some nearby woods. The instructor showed us a freakish looking thing that looked like frozen lava flowing from a tree. A sulphur shelf, also known as chicken of the woods. I was entranced. From that moment on, I wanted to find and eat wild mushrooms, which I found exotic, mysterious and more than a little dangerous. After all, for every chicken of the woods, there is a destroying angel or Satan’s bolete.
But it was not until I was fully an adult that I gained the skills I needed to be a passable mushroomer, and it’s only been in the last decade that I have known enough to be able to show others. Never in a million years would I imagine that my family would follow me on this trip.
Then I got a note from my mum. She’d gone on a mushrooming walk on Cape Ann in Massachusetts, and on that walk the instructor showed her all sorts of mushrooms — just as mine had done so 25 years ago in the woods of New Jersey. She too had been bitten by the fungal bug, and it took only a week for her to come home with her first prize: A chicken of the woods mushroom, the same variety that had so entranced me many years ago.
That was just a couple days ago. I arrived in Gloucester Sunday night, and about 12 hours later we were in the forest looking for mushrooms. All of us. Mum, my sister Lizz, my brother-in-law Mark and their friend Hazie (yeah, that’s a nickname). It seems the fungal bug is contagious. Hazie, however, knows his mushrooms, and it was good to have some local expertise among us as we wandered around. Expectations were high because mum had said there was a good flush of mushrooms in the woods. She was right.
They were everywhere. Every few steps there was a russula, a lactaria, a suillus or an amanita. It was a fairytale landscape of lurid color and bizarre form. I’ve only seen a flush like this a few times in my life. Striking blue corts were everywhere, masquerading as edible blewits, but a look at the tell-tale cobweb on their gills betrayed them as toxic.
Dotted around were neon orange false chanterelles and pholiotas and canary-colored lactarias. I have no idea what this one is, although I think it is an amanita of some sort. It practically glowed in the gloom of the forest floor.
Hazie and I hung back as the rest of the crew walked ahead. We felt the Mushroom Force take hold of us, and we both felt compelled to walk off the trail into a wooded clearing. Hazie bent down to look at a mushroom. “Sweet tooth!” he said. I found another mushroom nearby. “Hedgehog!” I answered — the same mushroom, different common name. Dentinum repandum. I collect these mushrooms in the dead of winter in California. Here on Cape Ann their season is now. Go figure.
I love these mushrooms, which taste a little oyster-y and are more savory than a typical button mushroom. They are also unmistakable: Look at the icicles hanging down from underneath the cap. This is why this whole family of fungi are called the “toothed” mushrooms. Most are edible, and if you see one with white flesh and a buff-orange-tan-brown cap, you’re in business.
We saw another related mushroom, but let it be because it was too small. This would be the legendary lion’s mane, Hericium americanum. I’ve never eaten it, but it has a great reputation at the table. I can’t wait to go back to this shroom in a few days to harvest it when it’s a little larger. This one was maybe 7-8 inches across.
Another oddity I’ve never eaten is the coral fungus. There’s a lot of it around Gloucester now, in several varieties. The prettiest is this spindle-shaped yellow coral, which I only learned was edible later.
Far more common was the white coral mushroom, which we did collect. It is listed as edible, but I’ve never tried it. Anyone out there given it a go? Any tips on what to do with it? It sure is pretty, and it smells a little like the air on the seashore, briny and fresh.
Other than the hedgehogs and the unknown edibility of these white corals, we also found tons of painted suillus, suillus spraguei. This is another edible of questionable worth. Some like it, others don’t. I’ll find out soon enough, as we collected several pounds. Anyone ever played with these?
Just a few feet from the suillus, we found one of my favored edibles, the honey mushroom or armillaria mellea. I’ve written about honey mushrooms before, and I’ve found them to be pretty good — not fabulous, but well worth eating. Not everyone agrees with me, and with good reason: Honey mushrooms affect different people in different ways, and some people get stomach upset from them. Regardless, honeys need to be cooked well before eating. I make them into a pierogi filling.
Maybe I’ll make some more pierogi with them this time, or maybe I’ll just fry them up simply. I will be fascinated to see if anyone else in my family gets an upset stomach from them — is my tolerance of this mushroom genetic or does tolerance stem from each individual’s unique intestinal flora?
Finally, as we were walking back to the car, we found the prize of the day. They look like shadows, ghosts of summer’s golden chanterelles. The French call them the Horn of Death, not very charitable considering that this is one of the greatest edible mushrooms in the world. Meet craterellus cornucopioides, the black trumpet.
It’s been relatively hot here in Massachusetts, and this means many mushrooms have already dissolved into a black goo. As you might imagine, spotting a little black mushroom amidst the blackened corpses of other mushrooms isn’t easy. But once we got our eyes on, we found lots and lots of them. Look for the black hole in the center of a shadow, and you will probably have yourself a black trumpet.
Curiously, just as we found black trumpets and hedgehogs in the same general area this week, the same holds true when I find black trumpets in winter in California. Even more curious, these mushrooms fruit around the same plant, more or less. In California, you look near huckleberries. In Massachusetts, look around blueberries — both members of the vaccinium clan. Hazie noted that there must be something about acidic soil, which all vaccinium species prefer.
I happen to have brought a big bag of dried black trumpets with me on this book tour I am on, so I plan on letting Lizz and Mark have our entire haul. As for mum and her chicken of the woods mushroom, I cooked it up for her in a little butter, Armagnac, chicken stock and cream. It was wonderful.