We were hunter-gatherers in our past -- so what about our present? Gatherers and foragers of mushrooms have taken the local food movement by storm, but even cultivators of mushrooms have some interesting things to say about our favorite fungus. We interviewed three different mushroom professionals to find out everything we could about about cultivating and foraging mushrooms.
Learning to Forage
One of the first things that turns people off when it comes to foraging mushrooms is the apparent danger. After all, there are lots of species that are safe to eat, but there are just as many that are poisonous.
We spoke with John Wright, who runs mushroom foraging courses at River Cottage HQ and has written a range of books on foraging including the "River Cottage Handbooks." As a forager, John started young. "When I was a teenager I found a few fungi in the New Forest and simply couldn't bear to not know what they were," he says. "I bought the "Observer Book of Fungi" and that was that. It is one of about a hundred books on fungi that I possess now." John's interest in mushroom foraging has helped him to learn all he can about local species.
A bit closer to home, Ari Rockland-Miller has become an expert in shiitake cultivation after managing Cornell University's Mushroom Research Project. Now based in Burlington, Vermont, Ari is a mix of self-taught and apprentice. "I have always been intrigued by the wild and enigmatic world of mushrooms," he says. "I persuaded my mom to buy me my first mushroom field guide when I was a little boy, but was overwhelmed by the sheer number of species of fungi and did not have much luck without a mentor to guide me."
© The Mushroom Forager | www.themushroomforager.com
But Ari did not lose hope. "It wasn't until the summer of 2009, when I managed Cornell University's forest farm - The McDaniels Nut Grove - that I began successfully collecting for the table. I started with the easiest species, like chicken of the woods and lion's mane, and built confidence from there. By that fall I was a full fledged forager, spending all of my free time hunting, identifying, and eating wild mushrooms. By focusing on the most distinctive and delicious species, and adding new species to my list each year, I learned to hunt mushrooms safely and confidently."
While both foragers have gotten a lot of help from books and even from courses, neither believes that in order to learn to forage, one needs specific training. "No-one needs a degree to pick blackberries or sloes - they have simply learned what they look like," John says. "Mushrooms are just the same. It is very easy to learn a dozen readily recognised edible species - all you need to be a mushrooming legend."
© The Mushroom Forager | www.themushroomforager.com
Ari agrees. "I don't think an official degree or certification is necessary - in mycophilic countries, including much of Eastern Europe, mushroom hunting is as ubiquitous and accessible as fishing is in the United States."
John does have a few recommendations for guides, particularly when a new mushroom forager is just starting out. "There are many excellent books designed to help the newcomer to mushroom hunting (though modesty prevents me from making a specific suggestion)."
Ari recommends the ForageCast on his website in order to keep up to date about local mushroom varieties. "The ForageCast keeps you informed about which distinctive and gourmet species are currently in season in the Northeastern U.S., telling you not only what to look for but where to look based on each species' favored host or habitat. For beginners, I would recommend Gary Lincoff's book, "The Complete Mushroom Hunter", as well. Lincoff's "Audubon Guide" is an excellent resource for intermediate and advanced mushroom hunters."
And learning about foraging isn't just limited to reading and listening to experts. Sometimes, the best way to learn is to get out into the forest! Ari recommends finding a mentor or local group in order to better learn to forage. "It is difficult to learn how to safely forage alone, as there are thousands of species - some toxic or deadly, some delicious, and the vast majority insipid, bland, woody, or bitter. By going on a guided foray with The Mushroom Forager or a local mycological group, you learn how to safely, sustainably and fruitfully approach foraging by learning the most foolproof species first. You also learn how and where to look."
The Benefits of Cultivated Mushrooms
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And even with all this interest in foraging mushrooms, all of our mushroom professionals highlight the qualities of a good cultivated mushroom. We spoke with Sarah Davis of the Mushroom Council, which represents cultivated mushrooms. "Fresh mushrooms grow indoors in a highly controlled environment on a year-round cycle," she explains. "They are harvested by hand throughout a 16-35 day cycle. Mushrooms are one of the most unique growing vegetables." Sarah also highlights the health benefits of mushrooms, which are not diminished when mushrooms are cultivated.
But what about flavor? For that, John has the answer. "There is nothing wrong with the flavour of cultivated mushrooms, it is just that people tend to undercook them - they need to sizzle!" he says. "While there may be few minor issues with pesticide usage, mushroom growing is a relatively benign form of cultivation, mostly using base materials (composts) which are the waste products of other processes."
Of course, if you're worried about even minor pesticide usage -- as well we all should be!--, you could always do as Ari does and grow your own."I love cultivating mushrooms, particularly the shiitake, which is a perfect species for temperate and cold-climate agroforestry systems and forest farms," he says. "I also love to grow the soil-building garden mushroom, the king Stropharia."
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Both of our mushroom foragers agree that what wild mushrooms bring to the table is undoubtedly a wider palate of flavors, colors and textures. But cultivated mushrooms can be a great way to introduce people to the flavor of mushrooms, particularly those who think they don't like them.
"A great way to introduce mushrooms for those that might not be familiar with them would be to use the blend culinary technique," Sarah says. "You simply chop mushrooms to match the texture of ground meat – beef, pork, chicken, turkey (or tofu) – and use in place of some of the meat in recipes such as burgers, tacos, meatloaf, lasagna, pasta sauce or meatballs to make every day dishes more healthful and delicious. It tastes even more delicious and brings more umami to your plate."
Serving Up Wild, Foraged Mushrooms
John Wright admits that though his interest in foraging started early, "eating them was something that came later." But today he has become quite the mushroom connoisseur, both in the woods and on the plate. He even dries the mushrooms he collects so that he can enjoy their flavor all year long. "You should see the jars on my shelf at home! I have about ten species dried and ready for anything that needs an extra mushroomy punch."
And Ari agrees that drying and freezing his own mushrooms is one of the major benefits of his trade "The nature of foraging is such that long, dry spells are interrupted by bounties of epic proportions. When I am lucky enough to find myself in a sea of black trumpets, I leave at least half in the ground, but take enough to dehydrate so I can enjoy the essence of a wet summer forest in January."
But perhaps one of the best parts of foraging is taking advantage of varieties that you just don't find commercially. While both of our mushroom foragers love lots of different kinds of mushrooms, John does admit that he has a "holy grail" mushroom. "Wood Blewits. These can be very common in the late autumn. Their lilac colour is stunning and the flavour unsurpassed and quite different from that of other mushrooms - slightly fragrant perhaps."
Ari has a few favorites as well. "My highlights every year include morels, porcini, maitake (hen of the woods), black trumpets, chanterelles, and matsutake. If I had to choose one favorite, it would probably be the porcini, or king Bolete. But there is nothing like the rush of finding the first morels in spring, after a long Vermont winter. When the early October air grows crisp, I crave a juicy morsel of grilled, cinnamon-scented matsutake."
And while finding mushrooms with the perfect flavor is definitely a highlight, Ari cannot dissociate the experience from the flavor in this, his favorite past time.
"Most of my favorite wild mushrooms are mycorrhizal, meaning their mycelium has a complex symbiotic relationship with the roots of plants," Ari says. "These mycorrhizal species are extremely challenging to cultivate, giving them a mysterious wild allure. Finding the mycorrhizal species in the wild relies on an intimacy with the landscape, ecology, and weather patterns of a particular place.
"Even then, there is an unpredictable element of surprise that summons our gleeful inner child when we stumble upon a honey hole. In a world where we have largely tamed, subdued, and defanged the wild, these mycorrhizal fungi resist cultivation and remind us of our limits as a species. Their flavors are exquisite and wildly eccentric, imbued with terroir and eliciting a sense of wonder."
If that's not an ode to mushroom foraging, we're not sure what is! While you can always take advantage of responsible mushroom cultivators, particularly for more basic styles of mushrooms, it's clear from our experts that the experience and flavor of foraging mushrooms can't be beat.
So take their advice and set out on your own. Who knows what you might discover.
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