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Scientists, Gourmets Seek Out Mushrooms

June 25, 2005

BASSETT’S STATION, Calif. — From the remote wilderness to the finest restaurants, wild mushrooms – long appreciated in Europe and Asia – are enjoying an ascent from freaky fungus to gourmet delight and scientific mystery.

“What’s not to enjoy about wild mushroom hunting?” says Ike Forester, president of the North American Mycological Association. “Sometimes you find a bounty of culinary prizes, high priced in the gourmet shops, and dinner can be an unbelievable experience.”

Once you start looking for mushrooms, you see them everywhere – poking their little brown caps through melting patches of snow, clustering in thick patches on a moist and grassy meadow, globbing out of a dead log like a lump of bread dough.

The same is true for fungiphiles, those bushy haired, plaid flannel wearing, grinning mushroom lovers who – armed with wicker baskets and wax paper baggies – hunt, collect, eat, photograph and admire mushrooms.

They also like to join clubs, which are popping up around the country these days like, well, like mushrooms after a warm rain.

Dennis Desjardin tenderly plucks a delicate brown cupped mushroom, small enough to be Tom Thumb’s goblet, growing in the debris of a soggy field of young corn lilies.

“Isn’t that fantastic?” says Desjardin, pinching the stem of the dripping little fungus in the high Sierra sunlight. “They’re so charismatic, how could you not love them?”

The inconspicuous little mushroom Desjardin is holding is yet another new discovery. To date, the San Francisco State University mycologist – a rock star in the world of mushrooms – has identified, named and published 150 new species, and he has hundreds more that he’s collected, identified and still needs to write up. That leaves at least 2 million more unnamed species still to go. More than 95 percent of fungi have yet to be classified, described and named in scientific journals.

On this June morning, Desjardin and a few dozen mushroom lovers are sploshing through the snowmelt, 6,500 feet up in California’s Sierra Nevada range, collecting hundreds of species.

Some, like the slimy fungus (“which looks like last night’s bowl of chocolate mousse”), creep slowly around the forest floor and can be carefully examined and identified. Others, like the ridged and pitted morels, (among the most delicious wild mushrooms in North America), can be fried up with butter, salt and pepper for an evening feast.

As exciting as the new discoveries are, many students are determined to find edibles on this foray as well.

There are now more than 75 local mushroom clubs in the United States, including about a dozen new groups. Other, more established clubs are enjoying a bounty of new members – in the past two years the Oregon Mycological Society, for example, has gone from 300 to 600 members, all salivating for their next porcini.

“There’s a lot of new interest, because people are getting exposed to wild mushrooms a lot more. They see them in restaurants, grocery stores, on cooking shows, and they realize they can find them in the woods,” said Forester, who works as an accountant in North Wilkesboro, N.C., when he’s not volunteering for the Mycological Association.

Most clubs cost between $10 and $25 a year to join. For this, members usually get to join club events, read a local newsletter and, best of all, a mushroom hot line, where they can speak or even meet with an expert to confirm the safety of their bounty before they saute it with their pasta. The value, say members, is in the camaraderie and the mushrooms.

“At $30 per pound, it often pays to find your own for free,” said Mary Woehrel, who founded the Mushroom Club of Georgia 18 months ago. Today her Atlanta-based club has 75 members who go on forays, swap recipes, attend lectures and promote cultivation.

Like many mushroom enthusiasts, Woehrel is fascinated by fungi.

“They’re beautiful, they come up overnight, and they do mysterious and magical things,” she said. “I used to be into wildflowers, but once I started learning about mushrooms, I never looked back.”

She also loves to eat them, especially so-called chicken-of-the-woods mushroom (Laetiporus sulfureus), a light yellow, flat fungus. Nibble it raw and it tastes kind of sour. But sauteed in butter with onions and it tastes astonishingly similar to the real thing.

The treat is all the more delightful, the hunters say, when you found them yourself.

Unlike flowers, say, or seashells, you don’t exactly “gather” mushrooms. Instead, you hunt for them like Easter eggs.

“I know I’m going to sound like a merry fairy, but you’ll be in the woods and they literally will call you,” said Nova Kim, who with her partner Leslie Hook makes a living as a “wild crafter” in Northern Vermont, gathering more than 150 different species of mushrooms and selling them to restaurants for between $15 and $30 a pound.

Crafting, or commercial mushroom gathering, has gone from a cottage industry a decade ago to a major and mostly unregulated agricultural business. In the Pacific Northwest, experts estimate more than 10 million pounds – valued at more than $100 million – of morels, chanterelles , matsutakes, boletes and others are collected and sold each year in roadside stands, in restaurants and to professional dealers who jet them over to Japan where they sell for 50 times the local prices.

Hook’s personal favorite is small and sweet, a tender little morsel she has nicknamed the Snow Shrimp due to it’s somewhat unfriendly botanical name. (“Would you want to eat something called Entoloma abortivum?” she asks.) On the ground, it looks like a puff of cotton, but when you cut into it, it has salmon veining and it feels kind of springy. The taste is complex, almost ambrosial.

“I’m passionate about all plants, animals too. I don’t know about people, I guess I’m passionate about some people. Mushrooms, well, I really do love them,” she said.

But not everyone admires mushrooms.

“You see evidence of hostility, a fear of mushrooms…. If you go to a park, it’s very common to find a mushroom kicked over. No one would ever think of kicking over a flower,” said Dr. Manny Salzman, a retired radiologist in Denver, Colo., who founded the still vibrant Telluride Mushroom Festival 25 years ago.

Fear may arise from the danger associated with certain varieties. As mushrooms’ popularity grows, so do incidents of poisoning, according to Michael Beug, chair of the North American Mycological Association Toxicology Committee.

In 2004, there were reports of 148 cases of poisonings and three deaths; in the two preceding years combined poisonings numbered 91, resulting in a single death.

The most common culprit is the terribly poisonous Death Cap, a light, thick mushroom with almost identical cap color, size, and stalk as the delicious and ubiquitous Paddy-Straw mushroom. The Paddy-Straw is eaten regularly in Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, and about half of U.S. poisoning victims are from Southeast Asia.

One way to tell them apart, experts say, is to check the spore print: Place the mushroom cap, gills downward, on a piece of paper overnight. The smudge left behind for a Paddy-Straw is pink, while the Death Cap’s spore print is white.

The most sophisticated mushroom hunters study the small differences closely, taking photographs or even painting their finds, hoping perhaps to find a new species.

“Wild mushrooms are fascinating because they are so different from any of the other life forms with which we are familiar,” said Damien Pieper, president of the Iowa City, Iowa-based Prairie State Mushroom Club, quoting an estimate of more than 2,000 different kinds growing in his state alone. “No one knows how many more may be discovered in the years ahead.”

An outstanding day of mushrooming for Jay Justice, who helps run the Arkansas Mycological Society in Little Rock, is when he finds a pristine blue or green fungus.

“My thrill is in identifying them,” said Justice, an epidemiologist for the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality, “but I like to eat them, too.”




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