The best mushroom I've ever eaten came from the edge of Route 41. John Wheeler spotted the thing, not me. But I was there. The specimen in question—a full-pound monster the size of a baseball glove—was an Hericium erinaceum, known variously as the bear's-head-tooth, the pom-pom, the monkey's head, and the lion's mane. Like constellations, mushrooms have myriad characterizations; with its jagged, ivory ﬂesh, John's ﬁnd looked to me like a dirt-rimmed Arctic glacier. Hericium erinaceum can be cultivated on piles of sawdust, although, as with all mushrooms, it's best when found in the wild—in this case, at the foot of a dying birch tree. We pan-roasted the beast that evening in two tablespoons of olive oil. Sweet and chlorophyllous, tasting like stems of kale, it was shockingly good. But most shocking of all was that we'd found this alien marvel not in the jungles of Peru, nor in the remote Himalayas, nor on the ocean floor, but in rural Massachusetts, on the side of the freaking road.
I adore mushrooms. As a child I rejected spinach and brussels sprouts but always demanded two, three, five helpings of fungus. This was 30 years ago; back then the only mushrooms in New England supermarkets were mass-produced button caps and, for a premium, hefty portobellos. Hardly exotic stuff, though tantalizing, especially when Dad sautéed them in butter and sprinkled them with parsley. There were hints, too, of a world beyond: on a family trip to Paris we tasted our first chanterelles, and in San Francisco we were introduced, by a hippie friend of my dad's, to morels and porcini. (He may have introduced my parents to other kinds of mushrooms, too, now that I think of it.) In any case, we envied the French and Californians their earthy rewards. Why can't we get these back home?Little did we realize then that the woods near our house in New Hampshire exploded each summer with bright golden chanterelles—only years later did I finally recognize them as such. It's likely I crushed more chanterelles underfoot as a kid than I've eaten in all the years since.
Nowadays, even my hometown's humble grocery stocks bins of porcini, enoki, and hen-of-the-woods. In upmarket dining rooms, wild-gathered mushrooms are as ubiquitous as microgreens and chèvre; at restaurants such as Craft and Chanterelle in New York, one can fashion an entire, savory meal out of fungus. Some chefs even give shout-outs to their foragers on the menu, just as they tout pork from Niman Ranch. And among certain foodies, the lonely mushroom-gatherer has become something of a folk hero—equal parts Thoreau and Ranger Rick, sniffing and sifting through the forest for that elusive yet free prize.
In Europe, mushroom hunting has long been a popular pastime, but Americans have largely shied away from it, understandably wary of eating something that could very well kill them. While there are dozens of mycological clubs around the United States that organize weekend "forays," few advertise to the general public—i.e., anyone dumb enough to pluck, say, a deadly Amanita verna. (There are about 70,000 species of fungi, of which roughly 250 are edible and another 250 are capable of reducing one's vital organs to, well, mush.) For years I'd been casting about for a hunt to join, but guided forays for novices are as hard to come by as a bolete in the Sahara.
Then I found Erhard Wendt, chef and co-owner of the Williamsville Inn, in the Berkshire hills of Massachusetts. Erhard is German—ergo, Erhard knows mushrooms. He learned to hunt for cèpes at age four with his grandparents in Westphalia. In the Berkshires Erhard goes mushrooming nearly every morning from July to November. Two years ago, he began offering a mushroom seminar for beginners, consisting of an afternoon foray led by a local mycologist and a fungi-themed cooking class, culminating in a group dinner.
This was how I met John Wheeler, Erhard's mycologist buddy and a founding member of the Berkshires Mycological Society. I've since encountered quite a few of John's foraging brethren, and I can report that mycophiles are a decidedly quirky breed. They put out newsletters with names like MushRumors, trade whispers about hidden Agaricus troves, dye wool with fungal juice, and turn dried fungus into jewelry. Listening to John rhapsodize about the mushroom's healing properties, its Darwinian resilience, and its "deep spirituality," you get the sense that he might prefer to be a mushroom.
"When's the best time to forage around here?" a voice calls out.
"Whenever the owners aren't home," John replies. We're deep inside someone else's property, a mile from the inn, on the oak-shrouded slopes of Tom Ball Mountain. It's a crisp October afternoon, and the air smells of wet moss and rotting leaves. "This is actually a perfect time for a foray," John tells us. "Foraging is best after a cold snap, like we had last week. Many mushrooms won't fruit until a cold snap wipes out the bugs, making it safe for them to open up and spore."
Besides Erhard and John, there are nine of us on the hunt today, and the amateurs are still getting the hang of it. We neophytes have so far uncovered one mushroom-shaped rock, one moldy Reebok sneaker, and one orange salamander cowering under a pinecone. John's basket, meanwhile, is already half full. Every 37 seconds he'll drop to his knees with a hearty "Ho-ho!" and uproot another specimen that the rest of us, maddeningly, have overlooked. "Why, here's a cheesecake polypore!" he'll announce. Or: "There's a turkeytail!" Or: "Hey—witches' butter!" Or: "Look, a dead-man's-penis!" (This is John's slang for a mushroom that's been parasitically "attacked" and deformed by another.) Erhard, too, has gathered an impressive stash, though he picks only edible varieties; John, with a collector's zeal, plucks all kinds, to photograph and document later.
The two veterans must be equipped with either infrared vision or an invisible sniffing pig because I, for one, am not seeing a damn thing. It's dim in these woods, even on this sunny day, and my eyes can register only a murky carpet of brown—brown dirt, brown needles, brown twigs, brown leaves, brown stumps, fallen tree limbs (also brown)— punctuated occasionally by emerald-green moss. Perhaps I'm too accustomed to scanning for vibrant colors. Perhaps I'm looking for fuchsia when I should be seeking taupe. John coaxes me on. "Wait till your eyes adjust. You'll see them."
And, gradually, I do. Walking with my back parallel to the ground—a cane would come in handy—I begin to spot dozens of honey mushrooms, camouflaged by oak leaves. ("It's good to bring along a three-year-old," John says. "They're just the right height.") As I focus ever tighter on the dead remains of the forest floor, it becomes clear that I'm surrounded by life: not just beige-capped honeys, but cortinarias, tricholomas, even a solitary chanterelle, glowing gold like a trumpet on its mossy stand. My heart jumps. It's like trolling a humdrum yard sale and finding an original vinyl copy of Kind of Blue.
The others are finally noticing, too. Cries soon come up from all over the forest. "Hey, John! What about this one?" "Erhard, are these okay for eating?" "Holy moley, look at all those porcini!" Our guides supervise the harvesting of each new patch. "Watch those stems don't mingle!" John warns. (Aside from never blending toxics with nontoxics, you shouldn't mix even the edible varieties; when two species come in contact with each other, one can change the other's structure and chemical makeup, rendering it inedible. To prevent this, foragers keep their pickings separated with waxed paper while gathering.)
Mushrooms grow incredibly fast, like bamboo. We come upon an oak tree with a scar across its trunk, into which is embedded a massive chicken-of-the-woods, 16 inches long, with beautiful fawn-colored flesh. Just last Tuesday, Erhard reports, it was the size of a tennis ball. He won't pick it yet—"not quite at its peak," he says. He moves on up the trail, leaving the rest of us to ogle the thing hungrily. Overpicking and picking too early are cardinal sins among foragers: it's important to keep enough intact for the fungus to regenerate. Some mushrooms behave like perennials, leaving spores to grow in roughly the same spot each year. Expert foragers keep detailed maps of prime locations and keep their best finds secret.
John stops to pass around a honey-colored cap that reeks, uncannily, of garlic. "It's amazing, the aromas mushrooms carry," he says. "Some smell like potatoes, some smell like lobster bisque, some smell like anise."
"Anus?" someone asks.
"That too," John says.
The deeper into the woods we go, the more colorful and fantastical the specimens become. Forget what I said about all mushrooms being beige—John's finds, especially, pop with bright and varied hues, some yellow as an egg yolk, some blue as a computer desktop, others rosy as a cheek. "I feel like I should be wearing flippers and a snorkel," says James, a fellow forager. I see what he means. The forest floor now recalls some tropical seabed, with wild mushrooms standing in for sea anemones, seashells, coral, jellyfish, and octopuses. (And no, I am not high on mushrooms.)
Just as bizarre are the names of these creatures. The "false death cap" sounds like something you'd wear in Dungeons & Dragons. "The Black Trumpets" would be a killer band name. "Tawny Grisette" is definitely an erotic-ﬁlm star. Then there's the crumbly Russula emetica, familiarly known as "The Sickener," which is just about the best supervillain name ever.
At the crest of the mountain we find the mother lode: a squishy path of moss festooned with pristine black trumpets. Like charcoal-gray flowers (the trumpet analogy isn't really accurate; think instead of a fleshy, half-dried tulip), they poke up through a coverlet of decayed leaves. Their aroma is rich and earthy—Italians call black trumpets "poor man's truffles." Instantly we're on our knees, loosening each precious bulb from its perch. Per form, we leave a dozen intact.
By five o'clock we have filled our baskets, and we march downhill to the inn to sort through our prizes. John arrays the whole crop on a picnic table to count. The final tally: more than 50 varieties, all found within two square miles of ordinary New England forest. The range of shapes, sizes, and colors is dizzying—and, yes, the prettiest ones are often the most lethal. "Eat that one there," John says, pointing at a delicate white-gilled toadstool that my wife plucked from a birch tree, "and in about two weeks your liver will disintegrate."
This, of course, is what keeps most right-minded folk from hunting for wild mushrooms. (Need I say that you should never go 'shrooming without expert guidance? Never go 'shrooming without expert guidance.) Still, even if you don't find a single edible specimen, foraging can be immensely rewarding. How often can one poke around the woods and feel vaguely productive doing so?And how often does one stumble upon such otherworldly beauty, free of charge, in someone's backyard?The only requirement is learning to notice. A tree stump contains multitudes.
As the sun descends, Erhard fires up the stoves, and we gather in the kitchen to clean, trim, and season our finds, which our faithful chef helps us work into a seven-course, Westphalian-inspired meal. In each dish the mushrooms substitute—very effectively—for protein; they carry an impressive range of flavors, from sour to sweet to savory.
Those humble honey mushrooms prove a revelation when served in a potato salad with roasted red peppers, onions, and sherry vinegar. We sauté the black trumpets with garlic, onion, and parsley, and they more than stand up to Erhard's rich butter sauce. During cooking, the trumpet's ﬂesh emits a dark, squid inklike juice that infuses the entire dish with a rootsy funk and, curiously, the unmistakable aroma of apricots.
A gargantuan hen-of-the-woods, found by Erhard and weighing in at 14 pounds, is chopped up and employed in a creamy spaetzle dish. Hens, which resemble overgrown pinecones or artichokes, can be found clustered at the bases of oak trees, along the roots of maples and ashes, and at gourmet shops for $24.99 a pound. (You can also find a cultivated variant, but the two are like pigskin and Nerf; farmed hens are no match for the wild.)
Finally, out comes John's stunning white Hericium erinaceum, the one from the side of the road—I've taken to calling it the Iceberg. This was a variety I'd never seen, let alone tasted, before today, and, as I mentioned, it was divine. Indeed, as the group oohs and aahs over its sweet ﬂavor and meaty texture, I'm secretly marking the spot on my map, just off Route 41, where the Hericium erinaceum was found. Next fall I intend to come back and hunt down another whopper for myself—unless John Wheeler gets there first.
PETER JON LINDBERGis an editor-at-large for Travel + Leisure. Stay away from his mushroom patch if you know what's good for you.
Foraging by yourself is a dangerous proposition, but amateur mycologists can take heart—the number of organized ventures is growing. Below, a selective roundup of mushroom expeditions and fungi-related events in the United States.
Mushroom Seminars at the Williamsville Inn
Rte. 41, West Stockbridge; 413/274-6118; www.williamsvilleinn.com; $250 for two (including dinner); Sept. 25 and Oct. 2, 2005.
Cook's Tour Weekends at the Inn at Weathersfield
Mushroom expert Amy Farges leads guests on a foray for wild fungi, followed by a cooking demonstration at the inn's well-regarded restaurant. 1342 Rte. 106, Weathersfield; 802/263-9217; www.weathersfieldinn.com; two-night packages from $475 for two; June 79 and Sept. 89, 2006.
Mendocino Wine & Mushroom Fest
Cooking classes incorporate 20 varieties of wild mushrooms. Mendocino County; 866/466-3636; www.gomendo.com; Nov. 1015, 2005.
Ventana Inn & Spa "Let's Go 'Shroomin' " Package
Park ranger and mushroom expert Chuck Bancroft leads fungi-finding hikes in Big Sur; a mushroom lunch follows at Cielo, Ventana's restaurant. Hwy. 1, Big Sur; 800/628-6500; www.ventanainn.com; two-night packages from $1,360 for two (including one dinner and a spa session each); Jan. 1113, Feb. 810, and March 810, 2006.
Breitenbush Mushroom Gathering
A long weekend of guided forays, hands-on cooking and tasting seminars, and lectures on mushroom-related topics, from anatomy and identification to fungi dyeing techniques. Breitenbush Hot Springs, Detroit; 503/854- 3321; www.breitenbush.com; from $554 for two (including lodging, meals, and conference fee); Oct. 69, 2005.
Wild Mushroom Festival
A monthlong celebration featuring mushroom-themed menus at local restaurants, free lectures, and hikes led by Veronica Williams, a professional forager. Long Beach Peninsula; 800/451-2542; www.funbeach.com; Oct. 15Nov. 15, 2005.
For listings of other forays and mushroom events, see the Web site of the North American Mycological Association (www.namyco.org).
The Complete Mushroom Book by Antonio Carluccio (Rizzoli, $40). Half cookbook, half illustrated field guide, this beautifully designed coffee-table book is like porn for 'shroom fanatics.
Mushrooms Demystified by David Arora (Ten Speed Press, $40). The classic, definitive guide to foraging and cultivating fungi, with 950 photos.
The Mushroom Lover's Mushroom Cookbook and Primer by Amy Farges (Workman, $17). Nearly 200 recipes, plus a buyer's guide, from the cofounder of acclaimed mushroom distributor Marché aux Delices.