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.