May is the start of the mushroom season. Those of us who are smitten with fungi even dream of mushrooms this time of year—the desire is that potent! I'm not sure exactly what it is about foraging that has grown tendrils so deeply into my psyche, but I'm beginning to get a few ideas.
I always thought I was a slightly weird American because I'm just not that into shopping. Although I've got an artist's eye, and a definite attraction to wonderful things relating to food, clothing and shelter, shopping malls leave me cold, trendy shops blast me out with loud music (or loud prices), and if I'm in one of those big box stores for more than 20 minutes, I can't be held responsible for my behavior.
But I do love to haunt the farmers markets, flea markets, and small local stores, where I can stroll the isles and check out the goods, for just a little while. They're quieter, less flashy, and you don't have to deal with those mammoth parking lots.
I was out in the woods last summer, feeling so good about being in nature, foraging for the evening's dinner. When I'm foraging, I'm a woman on a mission, I spend my walk scanning the forest floor, tree trunks and dead wood for delectables. While I searched and mused, I realized that I was exercising precisely the same observation and discrimination skills that I do when I'm shopping. Looking, examining, identifying, choosing, collecting. All those eons of hunting and gathering that have become part of our inherited psyche are now applied to the consumer culture—it's no wonder stores and shops attracts us like crazy!
It's wonderful that there are several delicious early mushrooms that emerge in May, well ahead of the rest of the pack, which begin to appear a couple of months later (see caveats below).
One that I'm especially fond of is called the dryad's saddle, because it's got several fascinating features. I love the romance of the name—a dryad is a beautiful tree nymph, a supernatural creature expressing the spirit of the tree. Dryad's saddle mushrooms grow on wood, and they do look like they could be a saddle for a nymph! They're a type of shelf mushroom called a polypore—if you turn one over, you'll see a surface covered with tiny pores that the spore (fungal seeds) drop from. Another cool thing about dryad's saddles is their striking textured pattern—the top of the saddle is creamy white and covered with a beautiful tracery of feathery brown chevrons. Mycologists have a really super-nerdy word for this patterning: squamulose, meaning hairy scales, and mycologists call dryad's saddle Polyporus squamosis. What's in a name? A lot, sometimes!
The third great thing about dryad's saddles is that they are edible and good, and there are no poisonous look-alikes. They have the aroma of cucumber! Find them while they're young and trim the tender edges from the saddle to eat. Use them in any nice mushroom recipe, they are mild and have a very nice, slightly chewy texture. The woody parts at the base can be used to make excellent mushroom broth, too.
Winecaps are a stemmed mushroom that begin popping up on mulch piles in May. Winecaps are choice edibles and they are stunning—a wine-red cap tops a creamy stem and gills. They can fruit by the hundreds, for weeks. The thing is, you have to be super careful with mushrooms with gills (which are the radiating fins on the underside of the cap) because within this type are the most toxic species. But if you've got a big fruiting on your mulch pile it's worth searching out expert help so that you can feast. First compare your mushrooms with photos and descriptions of wine caps in books or online—the lovely botanical name is Stropharia Rugosoannulata. If the description matches, ask an expert to confirm the identification. If you don't know any experienced mushroom hunters, check out the Mid-Hudson Mycological Association Facebook page—you can post some nice sharp photos and ask a club member for help, even to take a look in person (and then it's always nice to share the bounty if you've hit the jackpot).
I'm saving the best for last. Morels, of course. These are the 'shrooms of which spring dreams are made. Morels are considered one of the most delectable of all mushrooms; they're delicate and nutty and can be served many ways, though they love cream sauce—well, don't we all? They are all the more desirable because they can be so freaking hard to find.
Morels like to grow under old apple trees, dying elms and tulip poplars. I've been hunting them in the Mid-Hudson Valley for several years now, and the only place I've found morels are really rough going-- canopied with poison ivy and studded with deer ticks. I practically have to wear a hazmat coverall (though I gathered six pounds last spring). A few of us are more lucky—my friend Larry, a casual hunter, told me that he's got a spot right in Kingston where he can just stop by with a grocery store bag and fill it up! I wanted to hold him hostage until he cracked and told me where, but of course I didn't say anything about how challenging my spot is by comparison. Til now.
Morels (Morchella sp.) are pretty easy to identify. They look sort of like a pine cone; they've got an elongated cap that is textured with a honey-comb like network of crevasses. When you cut them in half, you'll find they are hollow (and great for stuffing). There are several local varieties: the black, the blond and the semi-free (does that sound like country western song or what?). Locally, they grow up to six or seven inches.
There is only one other slightly similar mushroom you don't want to eat that resembles morels, the Gyromitra esculenta or false morel, but you can learn the difference easily. It's hard to spot morels on the forest floor—they blend in like a dead leaf. I always stare at photographs of morels at the beginning of the season to retrain my eye. I don't know if it helps do that, but the concentration does whet my appetite. Kids are great at hunting morels—they've got endless energy and their sharp eyes are closer to the ground. (And don't worry about them getting poisoned—you can't get sick from touching any mushroom.)
Rules for safe mushroom hunting:
Get at least one good guide to mushrooms. I prefer Gary Lincoff's Audubon Guide to North American Mushrooms. Roger Phillips' Mushrooms and Other Fungi of North America has the most species of any photo-illustrated guide I know. If you're a fiend for morels, Michael Kuo's Morels is for you!
Check out on-line resources: the Mid-Hudson Mycological Association is fantastic—they've got an active Facebook page that will introduce you to the club and members. Two of the best web sites are Michael Kuo's mushroomexpert.com.
Don't eat anything you haven't identified in at least three sources and have ruled out toxic look-alikes.
Eat just mouthful or two the first time you try a variety, and save some uncooked samples. Wild mushrooms contain many complex compounds, besides the possibility of a misidentification, a particular variety might not agree with your stomach.
Always cook mushrooms—like grains, most of them contain compounds that are indigestible raw.