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.