Not Quite Alice

Around the middle of last week, my niece sent me a quick message containing a link to a woodland mushroom forage in Manchester-by-the-Sea.  She was hoping to attend; would I be interested in going?  I might be, I thought to myself.  But my only experience with foraging mushrooms had been selecting them from the bins at the grocery store or farmer’s market – any place where somebody else does the identifying for me.

It’s the identifying, after all, that is the tricky part of mushrooms.

Hasn’t every child been warned to stay away from toadstools and other fungi growing wild?  Poison, my parents said and I listened.  Proof was on my bookshelf – in my illustrated copy of  Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

`One side will make you grow taller, and the other side will make you grow shorter.’

`One side of WHAT? The other side of WHAT?‘ thought Alice to herself. `Of the mushroom,’ said the Caterpillar, just as if she had asked it aloud; and in another moment it was out of sight.

Alice remained looking thoughtfully at the mushroom for a minute, trying to make out which were the two sides of it; and as it was perfectly round, she found this a very difficult question.

`And now which is which?’ she said to herself, and nibbled a little of the right-hand bit to try the effect: the next moment she felt a violent blow underneath her chin: it had struck her foot!

She was a good deal frightened by this very sudden change, but she felt that there was no time to be lost, as she was shrinking rapidly; so she set to work at once to eat some of the other bit. Her chin was pressed so closely against her foot, that there was hardly room to open her mouth; but she did it at last, and managed to swallow a morsel of the lefthand bit.

`Come, my head’s free at last!’ said Alice in a tone of delight, which changed into alarm in another moment, when she found that her shoulders were nowhere to be found…

While I know now the book’s mushroom-induced growing and shrinking was made up, literary silliness, I also know my parents weren’t wrong to discourage us from eating unidentified fungi growing either on the lawn or in the woods.  With Eva’s invitation, I found myself, like Alice, a good bit frightened about the possibility of some sudden and unwelcome changes – such as stomach upset or, worse, death.  Pick up and eat just any old thing and it just might be the last thing I would eat.

Still, the group’s web page read, “Join us to forage for (safe!) mushrooms at Agassiz Rock.”  Safe.  Exclamation point.  Unlike me, they seemed to know what they were doing.

I decided to go.

On Sunday morning I picked up my friend, Anne, and together we met Eva at the head of the Agassiz Rock Trail in Manchester.  After listening to a quick rundown of instructions about how to collect and where, how to walk the loop in the trail, and where to bring collected mushrooms afterward for identification, we three set off on the hunt with about two dozen – probably far more experienced, mushroom basket-carrying – others.

After a warm, wet summer – perfect conditions for a bountiful September – mushrooms of all types sprouted everywhere.  Out of fallen branches, off the trunks of trees, along the bases of oaks and pines, under leaf mulch and fir needles, from the center of mosses.  Everywhere.

So we began gathering everywhere, randomly, our guiding principle to pick one of every species in the hope of learning as much as possible about edibles and non-edibles once we reached the identification table at the end of the hike.

Oh, what naïfs were we!

About halfway through our meander of the trail, we caught up to a man who seemed very knowledgeable about mushrooms.  He had just stumbled upon a patch of yellow chanterelles – one of the most highly sought after mushrooms that day – and took some time to show us where and share the spot with us.

We walked on a little further with him, and when we pointed something out, he was able to tell us something about the specimen.  “A yellow jelly.”  Edible? we asked.  “Yes.  Like a wood ear.  Best dried.”

Then: “A coral mushroom.”  Edible? we asked, by now our favorite (only) question.  “Yes.  Not poisonous.  But also not very flavorful.”

Then this:  “Black trumpet mushrooms.  Highly desirable.”  The mere whisper of the name sparked a chorus of “Where?  Where?” and what passes for a stampede among mushroom folk.

Then we showed him a large, speckly shroom.

“That’s some kind of bolete,” he said.  “You can usually tell a bolete by looking at the underside of the cap.”  We turned the mushroom over to look.  Honeycomb-like holes from tubules that extended from the cap, rather than the more familiar ruffled gills or smooth surface.

Bolete?  My interest was piqued.  The world’s most famous bolete is the porcini, or cèpes; had we found something similar?  If so, I was ready to ditch everything else in favor of finding more of these.

“Edible?” I asked.

“We-e-e-ll,” he replied.  “It might be.  But it might not be.”

Might or might not.  Hmmmm.  Not definitive.

“You’d have to find out which type of bolete first.”

There were many more questionable mushrooms, more mushrooms that required further study, than readily identifiable ones in our tote bag by the end of the forage.  A bag full of maybes and could bes, of I-don’t-knows and I’m-not-sures.  I felt a little like Alice again, left by the caterpillar, wondering which side of the mushroom was which.  Only the stakes were a bit higher in our case: edible or poison.

The ones we were absolutely certain of, the black trumpets, went home with Eva.  She thought she might sauté them in a little butter and fold them into an omelet.  Brave girl.

For now, I think I’ll limit my mushroom consumption to sources I’m certain of, i.e. sources that are not my woefully uneducated self.  But I would go on a forage again, educated or not.  I’m open to learning, and realize this might take a while to accomplish.  Along the way, I’ll have taken a peaceful nature walk, or two, or several.  No complaints there.

If you are interested in mushrooming hunting, I urge you to find field guides and read them.  Also find experts, either a mycology group to join or an edible forager to tag along with on guided tours of your area.  Do this more than once.  Become as knowledgeable as you can before you decide to cook and eat what you have found.

But also nurture the curiosity you feel to get out and enjoy the treasures sprouting up quietly around you.  Never let caution or fear stand in the way of that.  Beauty and wonder await.

Indian Pipe, a chlorophyll-free plant, not a mushroom

Mushrooms Sautéed with Garlic and Rosemary

Mushrooms and rosemary go together because they grow together, fungi and evergreen, and the pairing may make you cry tears of joy every time you taste it.  This preparation is fabulous on its own as a side with meat or fish, in an omelet, enriched with cream to make a quick pasta sauce, or sprinkled on top of pizza.  Once you saute your mushrooms with rosemary for a pizza topping, you will never go back to throwing a few raw slices on top ever again.

To remember when cooking mushrooms:  don’t stir too frequently as they cook in the butter and oil and you will develop a brown crust; add salt only at the end to taste and not while cooking to avoid drawing out all the moisture and ending up with too much liquid and not enough browning.

  • 1 1/2 to 2 pounds assorted mushrooms, such as portabella, crimini, white buttons, shiitake (shiitake caps only, stems are tough), sliced to similar sizes
  • olive oil to cover the bottom of the pan
  • 2 Tbsp. butter
  • 2 cloves garlic, slivered
  • 1-2 sprigs of rosemary (depends on the size of the sprigs and your personal taste)
  • salt and pepper to taste

Slice up the assorted mushrooms.  In the case of the large portabellas, slice across the cap and then cut these slices in half or into thirds to make roughly the size of a button mushroom slice.

Heat the oil and butter in a large saute pan over medium heat.  Add to the oil the slivered garlic and rosemary sprig(s).  When garlic is softened, add the mushrooms.  Stir to coat with the oil and butter, then spread these out evenly across the bottom of the pan.  Stir two or three times as the mushrooms soften and release their juices.

Next, raise the heat to medium high and let the mushrooms cook undisturbed for a bit to cook off the juices.  Once all juices have evaporated and there is only butter/oil left in the pan, remove the  stems of rosemary.  Several of the needles will remain in the pan.

Continue to cook without stirring, perhaps shaking the pan once or twice to distribute the mushrooms slices to brown evenly.  Once you have developed some nice caramelization on most of the slices, the mushrooms are done.  Remove the pan from the heat and season to taste with salt and pepper.  Mushrooms love both.  Serve in any of the ways described above.

©2011  Jane A. Ward