The spring sun fought its way through the dense canopy of trees and touched the forest floor. It had just rained and the smell of earth rose all around us. Mushrooms often appear after a downpour, so it was prime foraging time. Robert Sprenger, a local mushroom expert, and I were hunting for oyster mushrooms, a mild but delicious common edible.
They are known to form primordial bodies overnight. They can heal or be fatal. Some conjure dark magic. Some just taste delicious. Mushrooms: One of the culinary world's most intriguing foodstuffs, they have gained an entourage of geeky followers and foragers who are bringing their wild edible fungi to North Carolina dinner tables. In North Carolina more than 3,000 different varieties of mushroom have been identified, and of those, about 200 are common edibles, like hen of the woods or oyster mushrooms.
A major concentration of edible mushrooms grows in the Asheville/ Blue Ridge mountain area. So how do you know if a mushroom is edible or not? Charlotte Caplan, an experienced myco-hunter from the Asheville Mushroom Club, answers jokingly, "There is only one way to know if its edible or not and that is to eat it." A simple pass/fail life-or-death ultimatum. She was joking, of course. She relies heavily on experience, fellow mycologists and her field guides. "I always carry two or three field guides on me at a time when I am hunting," says Caplan, who has published a cookbook, Cooking with the Asheville Mushroom Club, focusing on the fruits of the forest.
Caplan uses a rigorous identification process that she developed over time; smell is one of her key processes. Many mushrooms have a signature fragrance. Young maitake's smell sweet in their youth; as they mature the scent changes to fishy. Many edible mushrooms pick up the terroir of the forest and smell like wet dirt or rain.
All mushrooms taste mushroomy, but each edible species has unique nuances. The texture and taste of lobster mushrooms are similar to lobster meat. Oyster mushrooms do not taste like oysters, but rather are mild and crunchy. Morels have a spongy texture but have a distinct taste and smell similar to truffles.
Asheville myco-enthusiast Alan Muskat harvests more than 400 pounds of mushrooms each year. He hosts a Wild Dinner series in which he collaborates with local chefs to cook his foraged mushrooms. The dinners include a foraging expedition in the mountains, locally crafted wine and mead, music and several courses with the wild edibles playing center stage. "The aim of the series is to create an intimacy with the food you eat. A symbiotic relationship, like certain mushrooms with trees," Muskat said. There are also eccentric items like lobster mushroom bisque and shaggy mane mushroom pasta. The shaggy mane melts into a black, inky, delicious mess; the ink is then used in the pasta dough.
There is a historic precedent for all the hype around these fungi. Ancient Egyptians believed they aided in immortality and decreed them the food of royalty. No commoner was allowed to eat them. It was similar with the Chinese and Japanese; mushrooms were exclusive to the wealthy and served as medicines, health tonics and as rare culinary pleasures.
Mushrooms are one of Mother Nature's nutrient powerhouses. Aside from legumes, mushrooms are one of the best sources of vegetable protein, which is why many are often described as tasting "meaty" and "smoky." They are packed with B vitamins and are often deemed "brain food."
Scientists are also studying mushrooms for cancer and HIV/AIDS treatments, forest conservation, soil nourishment, restoration of natural habitats and as organic pesticides. Mycopesticides have been used to eliminate carpenter ants in homes. There is a particular fungus, Cordyceps lloydi, that when ingested by an insect, takes over the nervous system. The insect has the sudden impulse to climb to the highest point and anchor itself with its pincers. Then it dies. The mycelium then takes over by mummifying the ant carcass in white spores. A mushroom will then fruit from the carcass, releasing its spores and allowing the wind to spread its seed.
Many premium wild edible mushrooms grow around the Triangle: maitake or hen of the woods are all around Cary; oysters thrive in Pittsboro, where local expert Robert Sprenger organizes the Chatham Mushroom Club. He hosts family-friendly foraging expeditions and moderates the online group "ChatMush," from which users send mushroom alerts: If you have discovered a location where Oyster mushrooms grow regularly, but cannot go out to check, alerts are sent to the board notifying members to check their locations for fruiting mushrooms. "Everyone in this area is working very hard to improve the community, and this is one way I can use my knowledge to help out," Sprenger says.
Sprenger is also developing low-energy, off-the-grid growing techniques for local farmers. He inoculates logs with mycelium, which is the fungal network that produces the actual mushroom. Since, as Sprenger stated, "rain equals mushrooms, I use gravity-fed sprinklers which are fed by rains" and by himself when there are droughts. Sprenger is also quick to dispel myths about identifying mushrooms. "There are some quirky and false methods for identifying poisonous mushrooms, like the 'Silver Spoon' method, where a possibly toxic mushroom will turn a silver spoon black or tarnish it. Its simply not true."
Sprenger became intrigued by mushrooms while growing up on a farm with a swamp in the back. "The wet environment was very conducive to mushroom growth, and as a child they were very curious to me." He then joined a mycological society and mushrooms became a lifelong interest.
Although the mushroom supply is more sporadic in the Triangle than in Asheville, which has a wetter climate, local farmers have a market for their mushrooms. Chefs with a locavore focus are interested in incorporating them into their menus. A few growers sell to Six Plates and Revolution in Durham. Herons in Cary uses local mushrooms and is always looking for more. They will be featuring morels this month and next. If you are looking for mushrooms at the grocery, Weaver Street Markets and Grand Asia Market in Raleigh have excellent selections of premium edible mushrooms at fair prices. The other edible mushrooms that are in season in April are chicken of the woods.
Sprenger and I walked through the woods in Pittsboro near a creek. Oyster mushrooms were fruiting on nearly every fallen tree. We cut them off with a knife and placed them in our baskets. The forest provided a bounty of mushrooms that day. The foraged oysters I used for a soup and a garnish on top of roasted chicken. The first taste of spring was exquisite.
The Foolproof Four
Foragers who hunt edible mushrooms often refer to the Foolproof Four. This refers to four mushrooms that are easily identified, do not have poisonous look-alikes, taste delicious and are therefore worth the time it takes to find them. One place to begin looking for mushrooms is on or around fallen trees and dead wood, especially after rain.
Disclaimer: While experts rely on different sources of knowledge, the Foolproof Four is by no means an authoritative guideline to ingesting wild mushrooms. Eating wild mushrooms that cannot be 100 percent identified is dangerous. If you do take a walk in the woods and find some mushrooms, consult a mycologist or your local expert.
Morels—They are anywhere from 2 to 6 inches tall and have a spongelike cap or honeycomb pattern that will extend two-thirds of the way down the stem in a cone shape. Morels fruit in the early and late spring. Their color can range from white to brown to brownish with black ridges. They have a distinct mushroom scent all their own; creamy and fungal.
Puffballs—Can be freakishly giant or the size of a common button mushroom found in the grocery store. They have a bulbous cap and the beginners should stick to specimens larger than a fist. Puffballs do not have a stem. They are smooth and white on the inside and range in color from brown to white on the cap. Puffballs are often found growing around fallen trees and lawns. They grow throughout the spring but fruit the most during the fall.
Shaggymanes—The tastiest of the inky cap group. Their name refers to their appearance when they begin to decompose; the mushroom will dissolve into a black, inky mess. They have a cyndrilical cap that sprouts shaggy-carpetlike tissue. They grow in the late summer to fall. This mushroom is commonly found in lawns and on roadsides. Smells starchy and breadlike with a mild sweet fragrance.
Sulphur Shelf or Chicken of the Woods—This mushroom usually grows on or around oak trees. They range from bright yellow to reddish orange. They grow in a shelflike formation with overlapping clusters and are stemless. These mushrooms will first appear in late spring through early fall. Their scent is mild and butterscotchy.
Paul Inserra blogs at paulsrecipepage.blogspot.com.