Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Treasure Hunting- For Mushrooms and Other Wild Edibles

Today I had the pleasure of meeting a wonderful woman, Lea (name changed), an author, urban homesteader, and forager like myself, who I knew from a foraging group I was part of, who just happens to be visiting a city right near where I live, and is leaving in a few days.


I teach wild edible walks in a park in that city, and while I love foraging and love teaching those classes, I sometimes wish I could forage together with someone else instead of needing to teach to a crowd. Because I like teaching, but I also like learning, and while people who've come to my classes have taught me a thing or two, I'm largely a self taught forager... I learned most of the foraging things I know either from websites or from books, but I was really looking forward to having someone teach me a few tricks in person. I never had a foraging buddy before, just foraging students...

One thing I'd never foraged before was mushrooms. Mushrooms is something I would never forage just from knowledge from the internet or a book- I needed a local expert.

And that's where Lea came in.

Lea is a very knowledgeable woman who forages all over the world- wherever she goes, she forages, and is the most knowledgeable forager I've ever had the pleasure to meet in person. I really wanted to have a chance to go foraging with her- bask in her knowledge, and perhaps share with her some of my knowledge of the local flora that she didn't already know.

Today Lea and I went foraging with another experienced forager friend of mine, and we found so many plants, and I foraged mushrooms for the first time! In fact, it was specifically because of the mushrooms that I wanted to forage with Lea. I know very many wild edibles, and am pretty comfortable in the knowledge that I have in them, and am rarely lacking for good wild edibles to eat. But mushrooms, never. And I really love mushrooms, and would like to be able to gather my own instead of paying high prices for plain old mushrooms in the grocery store.

When I asked Lea if she'd go foraging with me today, especially to show me how to find edible mushrooms, she said she'd be glad to, and that it was the perfect mushrooming weather today- a few days after a nice, good rain. She warned me, however, that its a good idea for us to forage earlier in the day, because when it comes to mushrooming, we'd have to compete with Cesar.

Cesar is an older, Russian, man who loves foraging, and especially hunting mushrooms. Lea and he are always in a competition as to who can find the prime catch first.
Mushrooming, Lea tells me, is called mushroom hunting, not mushroom foraging, because unlike other foraging, mushrooming is less predictable, more desired, and there often is some element of competition involved. Very often Lea goes out to find mushrooms, and discovers that Cesar got there first, by the bottom of the mushroom stems that he left behind.
Cesar often tries to show Lea that he is "better" than she is, more skilled at finding mushrooms, by gathering mushrooms and leaving them in a pile for her to find, in essence, saying "I beat you to it."

Today, Lea saw Cesar going out to the forest, and asked him to be nice, as she was going to show a new mushroomer how to find edible mushrooms. She wasn't so sure that he'd be willing to leave any behind, but we set out on the trail, hopeful that maybe, somehow, we'd find our edible mushrooms.

The first wild edible we saw was lantana, a wild edible whose ripe, black fruit are edible, while the rest of the plant is poisonous. But I knew that plant already, as did the other two foragers with me, so we passed on by quickly, eager to get to the real deal. My kids, though, stayed behind and helped themselves to the berries until I had to encourage them to catch up to us.

On the way into the forest, we saw a big patch of wood sorrel, wild mustard, and mallow. But we just passed right on by. That wasn't the prize we were after.
We saw milk thistle, bull thistle (a non white splotched cousin of milk thistle), chicory and a few different types of dandelion as well as false dandelion, hypochoeris radicata.
There were a few things that I wasn't sure if they were dandelion, but Lea said that you know its dandelion (and not chicory) because the "teeth" point towards the center of the rosette in dandelions. Dandelions and chicory both have a strong smell to them, and white sap, but you don't have to worry- there are no poisonous look alikes to this plant. At the very worst, you'll end up with something very nasty tasting, but completely harmless.

There was a plant that I wished I took a picture of, but I forgot. It looked like dock and was dock, but Lea suspected that it wasn't the tastiest dock, that it was really bitter dock. Yup, taste test confirmed that. Bitter tasting. Not so nice.

Then it was my chance to teach something to Lea and the other forager- this funny looking plant, has the scientific name umbilicus.


Can you guess why?
Doesn't it remind you of an "inny" belly button? Yea, well, you're not the only one. Its English name is either navalwort or pennywort. It has fleshy leaves, like jade, and likes growing out of cracks in rocks.


Edible cyclamen were growing on rocks near the belly button plant.

We saw a decent amount of chickweed, as well as its poisonous look alike, scarlet pimpernel. (You can tell that its chickweed by the thin line of hairs down one side of the stem.)


We also saw lots of wild fennel and discussed favorite recipes for fennel. (My two favorite will always be chicken breast stuffed with wild fennel fronds, and pasta, wild fennel, and ground beef.)

I've known how to identify Queen Anne's Lace, aka wild carrot, for a while now, even making sure not to mix it up with the deadliest plant- poison hemlock- which looks similar enough. But only when it's really large and full grown, never as a small little plant. But Lea taught me how to tell the difference even when small. (But I implore you- don't just start eating this based on what I'm writing here, because the slightest mistake when it comes to this plant, and you can be dead.)
Wild carrot, even when small, has a hairy stem/stalk. Hemlock has a smooth stalk. Wild carrot, when crushed, smells carroty. Poison hemlock smells nasty.

Wild carrot
We found sumac, olives, and acorns, but what I really wanted was those elusive mushrooms!

After walking in a meadow for a bit, we neared a grove of pine trees. This place, Lea told us, she calls Cesars palace, as Cesar has "claimed it as his own". He likes to come out there and entertain guests in this little grove. Cesar has so many things stashed away there, that no one else would be able to find, even if they were looking, things like pots and pans and cooking utentils, with which to cook scrumptious meals. Lea said that if Cesar left us a gift of mushrooms, this is where he would have left it. But there were no piles of mushrooms waiting for us. I assumed he selfishly took them all for himself, despite Lea having made her request...

In the grove, we saw a lot of what Lea calls LBM's- little brown mushrooms. There are so many types of mushrooms out there, and most people can't identify most of them, especially not those little brown mushroms, so we just skipped over those. We saw a few chanterelle look alikes, but there were some markings on them that made us know that they weren't the edible type.

We found this mushroom that Lea wasn't able to identify on the spot, but she took it home with her to try to identify via a spore print.



We discovered two mushrooms that we identified as russula, a species in which none of the mushrooms are deadly poisonous, though there are some that can cause gastric upset. The way we identified it as russula was by taking the mushroom, throwing it, and watching it shatter. Yea, that't why there's no picture of the whole mushroom- it shattered partially by the time we found it, and shattered further when Lea proved to us that it was russula, and shattered further on the way home.
We're still not sure if its an edible variety of russula- Lea is making a spore print, which is basically collecting the spores (the seeds of a fungus) and checking the color to help determine if this is an edible variety or not.
Another characteristic of this mushroom that helped clue Lea in to which mushroom this was was that it was growing where there was both grass and pine needles- russula needs a mix of the two.


Here's a picture of a mandrake, made famous by Harry Potter, but not edible at all.


We walked a little further, leaving Cesars palace, and then we struck pay dirt! Suillus granulatus, pronounced Sweelus gran you lat us, known in English as weeping bolete.

Mushrooming sites are very disdainful of this mushroom, claiming it to be "nothing special", but you know what? Its my first wild mushroom, I don't need it to be out of this world or truffle tasting, just free and mushroom tasting is enough for me. I especially like the fact that its very easy to identify, enough that if you follow my instructions here, to the letter, I wouldn't feel guilty telling you to be on the lookout for this mushroom. So long as you look for all the signs I mention here, the mushroom you find will be edible.


So firstly you have to look under pine trees. These only grow under pine.

Secondly, the cap will be sticky and wet. Peel off the sticky part at the top of the cap, because eating it can give you a stomach upset.


Thirdly, the underside of the cap has no gills- it is porous and looks like a sponge.


Fourth, the stem has reddish, brownish splotches/dots on it.


Fifth, if you break apart the stem, you'll see yellow on the inside. This mushroom stains yellow.

Now if you want to ask me how it tastes, I can't tell you yet- I'm trying it out tomorrow in risotto. Its a wetter mushroom, so lends itself better to soups and risotto than frying, according to Lea.

The question is- those mushrooms there- were they purposely left by Cesar? Or did we just manage to find them first? Who knows? Who cares!

While we were looking for the mushrooms, Lea showed us some wild thyme, which I plan on putting in the risotto.


We also saw wild savory and wild sage.

And then Lea had to head back.

On the way back, I pointed out some eryngo to Lea and showed her how to identify it at its young stage. It's mildly bitter with a slight carrot taste. I like it especially with tomatoes.


On my way home, and once I got home, I did a little more foraging. I picked henbit/dead nettle, a whole bunch of real nettle, milk thistle, pink sorrel, some of the wood sorrel, wild mustard, some type of mallow, sow thistle, wild fennel, and black nightshade to serve tomorrow.

The planned meal will be a salad with the pennywort, eryngo, deadnettle, milk thistle, sow thistle, wild mustard, wood sorrel, pink sorrel, and black nightshade berries, with an olive oil, sumac juice, and garlic dressing. I'll be serving that with thyme and savory wild mushroom risotto, along with some creamed nettle with coconut milk. I already served the fennel with pasta and meat tonight.

It was great fun to meet Lea and to learn foraging stuff from the "masters", as well as being able to teach the "masters" some stuff.
I can't wait for my delicious meal tomorrow!

Have you ever foraged mushrooms? What type? Are you in competition with anyone?
Do you have a foraging buddy? What types of stuff do you forage together?
Have you ever foraged or seen any of the stuff on my list? Which is your favorite?

1 comment:

  1. I go foraging with my parents for mushrooms as they've done so all their lives and are 66 and 70 now. However, I'm not comfortable doing it myself as I don't go with them often (they live in another state). I'd love to learn more about local foraging though. Is there a site that lists more information about foraging here in the US or any other resources you may know about? Thank you!


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