Wild Mushrooms and Wild Hunts


Photo by KdB1/Flickr CC

A news story about a Ukrainian woman and her adult son who landed in the hospital after eating mushrooms they'd foraged reminded me of the pleasures and perils of mushroom-hunting, a hobby I've pursued on and off--mostly off--since taking part in the hi(gh)jinks at the annual Telluride Mushroom Festival, sponsored by the Telluride Institute. Every year, over three summer days, there are mushroom expeditions, seminars, and of course feasts. One of the founding guides and cooks was Andrew Weil, who was there the year I hiked and ate and learned.

I came back eager to go on the hunt in New England, and one of my early expeditions was in the wet woods of Vermont with Barbara Kafka, who as usual had read numerous field guides and scholarly reference books and taught herself much more about mycology than I had after my mountain-high-energized reading. Also, she'd been at it a long time--the counters of her Vermont farmhouse were from spring to late fall generally covered with chanterelles, porcini, and various boletes drying on paper towels--and had seldom suffered any ill effects.

That doesn't mean you shouldn't go on a trip of your own--guided!--and shouldn't enjoy mushrooms all year.

Until we listened to an Italian guest who came along, experienced in the dry scrubby hills of northern Lazio but not the wet underbrush of Vermont, particularly near a stream with extremely active beavers. He urged Kafka to serve thin slices of the boletus edulis we found raw in a first-course salad with shaved Parmesan--standard practice, but incautious by a busy-beaver stream. By that night we knew we all had giardia, the water-borne parasite that, the Kafkas said, is locally called beaver fever.

Mushroom-foraging is Sunday sport in most of Italy, and not just traditional but often business in Eastern Europe and Russia, so I'm sure the local Ukrainian woman had enjoyed years of mushrooms before being tripped up by an amanita--a very common, and very deadly, mushroom that takes various guises. Best to go with a guide; various chapters of Slow Food USA organize mushroom hunts, and guides are often accredited members of the Mycological Society of America; a mushroom-foraging site I found has, like most such groups, an "Important Disclaimer" right at the bottom of its home screen.

That doesn't mean you shouldn't go on a trip of your own--guided!--and shouldn't enjoy mushrooms all year. Kafka uses dried mushrooms you can find at the supermarket in many recipes, including in her marvelous Soup: A Way of Life; Jack Czarnecki has written A Cook's Book of Mushrooms, among others.

And really this whole post is an excuse to highlight Sally Schneider's marvelous recipe for a wild mushroom ragu--really a meaty-tasting, freezable, "mutable" as she says sauce you can keep on hand for a quick pasta supper or for when you're having a group, and you make what a friend's "ancient" Italian grandmother called the Big Macaroni. Our own Eleanor Barkhorn will be making it soon, and once you read it my hunch is that you will too.