Dreaming of Mushrooms
by JAY RASTOGI
As clouds float by I keep looking up and hoping for a bit more rain. If we get sufficient rain while the temperatures are still relatively warm, the abundance of species and quantities of mushrooms can be astounding. Once you get hooked on looking for mushrooms – for food or just their incredible variability and diversity – they are as addicting and exciting as Easter egg hunts.
Mushrooms are the “fruiting” body of fungi, analogous to the fruit on a plant. Except the part I’m comparing to a plant does not photosynthesize (so in some ways they are more like animals than plants). They make their living in a variety of ways – often underground, attached to and getting their sustenance, like the ever favourite Chanterelles, from the roots of living plants; or growing on dead logs and stumps like the Chicken of the woods. Others prefer lawns and pastures such as the Agaricus species – one of which is the common grocery store mushroom. It seems there are mushrooms for all kinds of habitats, some of which are edible, some which are poisonous and many for whom edibility is unknown. (Volunteers needed.)
The part of the fungus that digests nutrients looks like fine threads. If you peel back the moss on the forest floor you are quite likely to find this white, webby network. When temperature and moisture conditions are correct, they form mushrooms. Most of the common mushrooms have a cap with gills underneath – though there are others with pores, teeth, or other structures which produce and release millions of tiny spores.
The most widely consumed mushrooms in our area are the Chanterelles. We typically have three varieties here – all of them delicious. The Yellow Chanterelle is most widely recognized and easiest not to confuse with other species. The White Chanterelle is similarly in texture and taste, but more difficult to identify. There are many large white mushrooms this species can be confused with, but the gills of other species are thin and not blunt edged or forked like the Chanterelles. Both the Yellow and White Chanterelle vary in size.
The third species of Chanterelle one is likely to encounter here is the Winter Chanterelle. It is the most cold tolerant of the three and fruits late into winter. It is small in stature and not mealy like the other chanterelles (this one has a hollow stalk, while the other Chanterelles do not). It takes more effort to collect this species, but it has a good flavour, so in my opinion well worth it.
I don’t wish to promote fear of mushrooms, but of course care should be taken when gathering and identifying mushrooms for consumption. The colour and size of different individuals of the same mushroom species varies greatly, so the “normal” way one looks at bird or plant guides is not as effective for mushrooms. Mushrooming with knowledgeable people or taking a course can speed up your learning curve. I’m leading a walk for Ladysmith Parks and Recreation on November 2nd and also teaching a couple of workshops at Wildwood (October 27 and November 10). There are also walks, workshops and festivals in Victoria, Cowichan, Tofino and beyond.
Learning to identify the common species adds a whole new focus to autumn walks. For me, bringing something unexpected from the forest for the table feels like a gift and satisfies in a way which is difficult to describe. My hope is for you to feel it as well.
Cream of Chanterelle Soup
1 cup chopped onions
2 cloves garlic
1 pound Chanterelles
butter (or chicken fat)
1 cup (or more) whipping cream
1 cup whole milk
salt, pepper, cayenne to taste
Dry sauté Chanterelles until most of the water is out and then add butter. In a separate pan sauté onions and garlic. When both are done combine them and add the cream and milk. Do not bring to a boil after adding the cream and milk. Add seasoning to taste. Can also add wine or port.
Jay Rastogi is a naturalist, horticulturalist and educator living in Yellow Point. ecoforestry [at] gmail [dot] com