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canoe country cuisine

Edible Mushrooms: The Fruit of Fall Foragers

      by Mark Sakry

There are old mushroom hunters
And bold mushroom hunters,
But there are no
Old, bold mushroom hunters.

       Foraging fall fungi offers the northern wayfarer a wonderful alternative to conventional camping activity, and it can help round-out a trip that may otherwise turn out dull.  Not to say that any journey through canoe country should turn out dull
but what do you do when the fish just ain't biting, the berries are all dried-up, the water's too cold to take a pleasant dip maybe it's raining?
    Try hunting mushrooms.  Mushrooms for the campfire cauldron!
    Nature has it that the best time for hunting mushrooms, at least in this neck-of-the-woods, is late summer and fall.  Although many of the fungi that appear in fall can also be found earlier in the year, no other season affords a greater abundance or variety of mushrooms.
    This season is marked early on by the appearance of the noteworthy chanterelle
in much the same way the early glimmerings of summer are ushered in by the highly esteemed morel.  Both afford superb eating!
    Then bursts forth a burgeoning of forest fungi, as though a spell were cast upon the entire northern scene:  bronzed boletes bubbling from barren brown pine mats; russulas flaming red from leafy rock-strewn woodland flats; corals clinging to mossy aspen deadfalls; gray rampikes shelved with creamy oyster slats; disfiguring lobster mold in blazing parasitic attack; witch's hat transformed from deep red-orange to deeper shades of black

   All free for the picking.  At least, some.  You want to be real careful about what you pick to eat.  Treat this more than simply matter-of-fact.
    Get a mushroom guide.  Ambiguity intended.  Paperback or in-the-flesh, the novice needs a guide.
    While few mushrooms cause bona fide life-threatening illness
and, believe it or not, most wild mushrooms are considered edibleforagers, consider what you don't actually know might actually kill you.
    I like going foraging with my friend Lyle (Joe) Kivisto.  He is an astute naturalist and environmental educator from Grey Eagle, Minnesota.  He is naturally fastidious in the field identification of either plants or mushrooms.  And, while I am foolish enough to think at times that I might have the jump on him in my own knowledge of wild fungi, his routine insistence on technical verification by text
and sometimes by experimentis quietly sobering.
    He takes his time.
    But the delight one can experience in the positive verification of a field species, flora or fungi, is pure enlightenment!
    The real hitch in all this weird business, beyond the incontrovertible verification of a specific mushroom, is that you need to know what has been safely eaten in the past.  And, as disheartening as it may sound, this does not come from science.   It comes from folklore.
    No simple laboratory test will completely determine whether a mushroom is esculent or poisonous.  Only age-old, hand-me-down knowledge will give you this.
    Not to worry, however.  Most reliable scientific field texts will provide suitable background lore and tell you whether or not a species has been "reported" to be edible (or, for that matter, poisonous) and to what extent.
    This you must depend on, if you can't engage an expert.  Stick to dependable field guides with good pictures and descriptions and conscientious human help if you can get it.  Don't eat any mushroom that you cannot identify
or that you are not absolutely positive is safe to eat!

    So much for equipping ourselves for a safe harvest.  But what of protecting the lush preserves of our northern forest fungi from overly ambitious plundering by us?
    Fungi, in general, are very sensitive to changes in natural conditions
temperature, moisture, habitatwhich is what makes many mushrooms so elusive and mystifying.  Morel hunters will attest to this:  Rarely is this delectable found in the same place every spring.
    But many species stay fairly put, and it is not unusual to obtain a fruitful harvest from the same log or the same patch of woods year-after-year.  I have found chanterelles in the same campsite on Basswood Lake three seasons in a row.   What a treat to return every year to marvelous meals of poached walleye basted with butter-fried mushrooms!
    Great care must be taken while harvesting wild fungi, however, to ensure their preservation and return.  Understanding exactly what a mushroom is may help.
    A mushroom is actually a fruiting reproductive body which sprouts from an intricate network of mold-like mycelium
the true "vegetative" portion of the plantgrowing beneath the ground (or in wood, as the case may be).  A mushroom can be taken in much the same way that a berry or fruit can be taken, without serious disturbance or destruction to the mother plant itself.  But not plucked.
    Harvesting should be performed with a knife, and the mushroom severed without disturbance to the substrate beneath.  The only exception would be when you must extract the mushroom whole
with its base intactfor purposes of identification or study.
    Also, I make sure that enough caps remain at the site of my find to ensure adequate propagation.  I will leave the finest esculents completely undisturbed if only a few can be found in a single area.  Fungi play an important role in the organic forest environment.  Committing any avoidable act which upsets the delicate balances within the tremendous and complex living systems of our northern forests
falls nowhere short of sacrilege.
    It will behoove us all if the forager cultivates a sense of reverence and respect for any wild bounty
and harvests in good conscience.

    The proverbial quibble, "You can't compare apples to oranges," may be literally applied to the vast diversity in sizes, shapes, flavors, and textures of wild fungi.  Few mushrooms are similar in every aspect.  And not everyone will agree on what might be considered "eminently edible."  Once, while teaching an adult course on edible wild mushrooms, I was met with some indignance by one of my students who proclaimed that butter-fried flat slabs of giant puffball provided "the best eatin' in all the world."  I had been carrying on for some time, slinging my own personal assessments to the contrary.
    Experience will be your best guide.  And the autumn woods is replete with culinary possibilities.  Use only small portions of any mushroom you have never tried before.  This is good practice for the preservation of natural mushroom habitat
good practice, perhaps, for the preservation of your mortal soul.  Check out the appendix titled "Cooking and Eating Wild Mushrooms" in the Audobon field guide for a rather enlightening discussion regarding this.  One should read all appendices provided with scientific field guides before engaging in wild harvests of any kind!
    Following are some of the finer fruits of the fall season in the BWCAW and surrounding border country.  Most species are relatively easy to identify, but, once again, get familiar with a few reliable field guides before attempting your fastidious forage.  Better yet, bring along an expert:

Chanterelle.  The true harbinger of the late mushroom season
most delectable!   This ubiquitous esculent is the most commonly sought wild mushroom in the world.   While most texts warn against possible poisonous look-alikes (mainly the jack-o'-lantern, so named because it actually glows in the dark), the chanterelle is worth all the trouble you might go through to verify it.  Found usually in large groups or "fairy rings," some say the chanterelle has the delicate fragrance of apricots.

Boletes.  A large group consisting of both edible and poisonous varieties, a few are unmistakable.  In the boreal forest, look for the chicken-fat suillus, common scaber stalk, or aspen scaber stalk.  You will find these, respectively, beneath eastern white pine, birch, and aspen.  The slippery jack, while quite common and serving as a preferred edible, must be harvested with a bit more caution (I've never actually eaten it).
    Boletes are characterized mainly by the absence of gills.  The underside of the cap is more like a fine sponge.  But, as you may have guessed, one or two other major mushroom groups possess similar characteristics.  Boletes provide excellent canoe-country fixin's.  Usually in great bounty.

Sulfur Shelf.  Also called chicken mushroom, or chicken-of-the-woods; any one of these names is appropriate for this unmistakable variety.  This is the magnificent bright-yellow shelf fungus, fringed with rims of blaze-orange, that almost everyone has seen growing from hardwood tree trunks in both deciduous and coniferous regions of Minnesota.
    Fall hunters should be especially familiar with it, since it is hard to miss while ambling through the sparser foliage of the fall season.  It is most striking (and impressive) when struck by sunlight
very much like burning sulfur.  Against a backdrop of forest green it can take your breath away!
    Unfortunately, what the sulfur shelf affords in beauty, it lacks in culinary virtue.  But it can be found in great abundance and is easy to identify, making it popular among mushroom foragers.
    Not that it's entirely unwholesome for eating (many disagree with me, anyway!)
it is well worth picking if you are short on any of the more palatable varieties available this time of year.
    Indeed, it has a delicate flavor but also possesses a characteristically fibrous texture, which seems to render its flavor nearly nonexistent.   This texture agrees with some, for it is very much like the white meat of poultry.   Thus the appelative "chicken mushroom."
    It makes a good substitute for meatless camp stir-fries, casseroles, and spaghetti
really worth trying.

Oyster.  Mushroom aficianados will almost unanimously agree that the oyster stands as one of the most agreeable varieties for eating.  Another "shelf" fungus
and one of great reputethe culinary possibilities for the oyster are as diverse as those for the domestic (store bought) Agaricus bisporus, even though they are not related in any way.
    As with many of the "fall" mushrooms mentioned in this article, the oyster can actually be found throughout the growing season.  In fact, I have been on many a fruitless morel hunt in May when I was fortuitously rewarded with oysters in lieu of the prized Roon.
    It would pay for amateurs to become familiar with this one!

Corals.  Aptly named, it is not too difficult to pin down any mushroom from the family Clavariaceae in the field.  All varieties do indeed look like coral growing out of the forest floor, or out of rotting wood.  Clusters of these choice club fungi can be found the size of softballs, but golf-ball size are quite common as well.
    All varieties of coral in Minnesota are supposedly edible, though a few may be found to be somewhat tough.  Those who find the flavor of mushrooms acceptable but are mildly repulsed by their slimy texture might find the coral extremely palatable
especially in scrambled eggs, where the slim tendrils are jumbled-up among the curds, and lend more to the dish as an herb-like seasoning than as whole "vegetable."

Puffballs.  No article on edible wild mushrooms would be complete without mentioning the ever-popular puffball group.  All puffballs are reported to be edible
but with some caution to novices on avoiding young buttons of other mushrooms which may look like them.   Deaths have occurred from the infamous "death cap" Amanita in its early button stage, preposterously mistaken for the puffball!  Don't pick any fungus for the pot without an expert.  If you cannot make the simple distinction between a puffball and a mushroom buttonyou're not ready to forage on your own.
    The puffball group offers foragers great picking year-round especially in the fall when many varieties, large (like balloons) and small (like marbles), can be found growing from mats beneath either pine or spruce.
    Because puffballs form their spores without tubes or gills, they are all "meat."  And if you take to their peculiar flavor or aroma, you can use them in any dish that calls for mushrooms.  The rather buxom giant puffball can be sliced into "steaks" and fried in butter for what some call "the best eatin' in all the world."  But be sure to peel off the tougher outer rind first (makes for easier cleaning anyway).
    By drying slices of puffball in the sun
readily performed on the bottom-side of a canoeand then pulverizing the fungus into a fine powder, one can produce a light, delicious flour for baking.  I use an electric blender at home, but a little resourcefulness around camp might give you pretty fair results.  Mix one portion of mushroom flour for every three portions of regular flour in any bread or pancake recipe.  Making flour can be done with virtually any mushroom that is readily dried!
    With puffballs, use only flesh that is white and firm; a green or yellow tinge indicates that the fungus has entered its spore-producing stage and may prove unpalatable.

Lobster.  Here's one that presents a bit of a challenge to the dedicated forager.  Almost anyone who has ever walked a lake-country portage in late August or September has seen this gruesome-looking variety.  This is the bright red-orange disfigured fungus that you find growing in large groups from the forest mat.  And the farthest thing from your mind when you encounter this one is "Can I eat it?"   This, perhaps, best describes the lobster.
    This peculiar fungus is actually a mold which parasitizes various species of lacteria and russula mushrooms (thus the disfigurement), and extreme caution must be exercised in determining which host species you have actually discovered.  It must be one that is edible.
    Some lacteria hosts have been known to cause gastric upset.  But I, myself, have not actually found any hosts other than the edible short-stalked white russula in the BWCAW.  While slightly bitter in itself, this particular species is rendered highly delectable by the lobster mold.  (Weird, huh?)  But still
be certain of the species you have found.
    The only dependable way to verify a host species of the eminent lobster mold is to find one which has escaped its despicable deformities.  This isn't always easy, however.  Even while the short-stalked white russula can be found in large groups over an entire wooded area, you will be hard put to find a single specimen intact once the lobster mold has moved in.  Good Luck! 


Recommended Mushroom Field Guides

    The Audobon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms by Gary Lincoff (Alfred A. Knopf, $13.50).

    Edible Mushrooms by Clyde M. Christensen (University of Minnesota Press, $7.95).

    Mushrooms of North America by Orson A. Miller, Jr. (E.P. Dutton, $14.50).

    The Mushroom Hunter's Field Guide by Alexander Smith (University of Michigan Press, $14.95).

    Mushroom Pocket Field Guide by Howard E. Bigelow (Collier Macmillan, $4.95).

Copyright C. Mark Sakry 1988

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