Foraging–the fine art of scouring the countryside in search of edibles–predates the ubiquitous farm-to-table movement by at least two million years. Even today, it’s not a bad skill to master, and certainly in New England it’s hard to imagine anything more inherently Yankee: free-ranging off the land (or free anything, for that matter) plus tasty goodness. And fall is prime time for an added gastronomical treat: mushrooms.
Overhead, the forests are aflame with color. Underfoot, they’re bursting with fungi. At this time of year, a walk in the woods can quickly become the basis for an evening meal of delicate black-trumpet mushrooms in spaghetti sauce, drizzled over a bowl of steaming pasta. Or a saute of nutty porcini, freshly plucked from under an oak. Or lemony chicken-of-the-woods peeled from a beech tree to flavor chicken-broth soup.
The first step: Find a mycological expert, preferably someone like Dr. Rick Van de Poll, a 30-year veteran of walks in the New Hampshire woods, with degrees in mycology and lichenology. In 1988, Rick was a founding member of the Monadnock Mushroom Club, and he still leads forays from Hancock’s Harris Center, as well as a dozen or more walks each year for organizations throughout New England; he’s also the founder of the Sandwich Mushroom Club. By his own admission, this lanky woodsman has led “thousands and thousands” into the secret world that’s right under our noses.
“Here’s a sample of artist’s conch,” Rick says, his sharp blue eyes brushing the landscape. A loamy smell rises as we slip into the woods. “It’s not tasty, though. Kinda tough. Also called the American reishi.” It’s the first of several medicinal mushrooms Rick will identify as we meander deeper. I’m scanning for bobcat, too, after learning more than I wanted to know about a certain heap of scat.
What does a man who’s eaten more than 300 species of mushrooms look for when he’s foraging? “That’s not answerable,” Rick grins. “It depends on what I’m eating. If I have spaghetti sauce, then yeah, black trumpets are probably one of my favorites. If I’m sauteing something to add to a rice dish, oyster mushrooms are very high on my list, because they have a great flavor. Matsutakes, of course, give you the most money in the market, upwards of $350 a pound, if they’re prime buttons, in good shape.”
Skill and expertise are crucial when foraging for wild mushrooms, as some species are deadly. Rick offers two essential pieces of advice to the aspiring mycologist: “Get several good field guides–the more the better–and go out with a group led by an expert.” Groups, like mushrooms, are easy to find; check the Northeastern Mycological Federation website (nemf.org) for listings and links to registered New England clubs.
“You can always find mushrooms if you know where to look and what you’re looking for,” Rick notes. “With some good books, and some guidance from people like myself, you can do pretty well.” Although you may not necessarily find what you’re after: “That’s the beauty and the mystery, I guess, of the mushroom world.”
Read more about Autumn A to Z in the September/October issue of Yankee Magazine