Thursday, January 9, 2014

Mycophagy, Man: Tales of Foraging and Wild Mushroom Tagliatelle

Boletis edulis; Porcini

Me and Mushrooms.  Mushrooms and me. 

This love affair has been going on for my whole life.  But it was in August 2013 that I officially began dabbling in the world of amateur mycology - that is, the amateur study and collection of mushrooms - because that was when Matt, as a wonderful anniversary gift, got us a Saturday outing on an amateur mushroom hunt in the Rockies together.  I've been meaning to write this post since then!

cross-section of porcini ready to dry in the oven

We left Roman with a neighbor that sunny Saturday morning and headed off into the mountains of Jefferson County, Colorado to an undisclosed location to hunt Porcini - or King Boletes - boletis edulis.  (And for the record, who the heck knew Porcini grew in Colorado?!  Apparently it's a big thing.)  But I had been dabbling in the world of mycophagy - that is, the practice of consuming fungi, or being fungivorous (love that word!), my entire life.  I've mentioned before that as a small child rather than having an imaginary friend I had an imaginary mushroom I chewed on all day.  It's odd.  Very odd.  But very me.

I love mushrooms.  I seek them out at specialty shops on a regular basis.  And now, instead of paying a hefty price for barely passable fresh chanterelles and dried porcini from central Asia, I know how to collect them myself, right here in Denver and the surrounding areas.  I also know how to dry them, prepare them, and even discovered how to make porcini powder from the dried and blended underpart of the cap.  So many new secrets, discoveries, delicacies.

findings from the forest in Evergreen
Mushroom foraging was something of a revelation for me.  As Matt put it, rarely in life does one come across something that is so true and inherent a passion.  Not only did mushroom foraging come naturally to me (I'm pretty sure I had all the characteristics memorized the first time around), but I also became obsessed with it instantly.  The weekend after our first forage, during which I found the largest king bolete of the group, Matt and I returned and looked for more mushrooms.  He had a very hard time pulling me out of the woods after 3 hours.  I was unstoppable with my Danish knife, paper lunch bags and backpack.  A few weeks later, I booked my next foraging excursion with the same company and guide - Graham Steinruck of Mycotours.  I became friends with Graham and began to get mildly connected to the semi-secret underworld / sub culture of amateur mycology and mycophagy.  I couldn't stop talking about mushrooms, drying mushrooms, eating mushrooms.  Everywhere I went, I was looking for them - even while driving.  My neighbors even started bringing mushrooms back from their hikes for me to identify.  It was a pleasant surprise to have a new and convenient hobby - one I'd always wanted to take up but never had the time or access to do so.

One of my favorite aspects of mushroom foraging is the traipsing-through-the-woods part.  Matt and I took Roman with us on a couple of other forays - to the original spot in Jeffco and to a new spot up in Evergreen where we encountered a Czech man who gave us a giant load of porcini he didn't want.  We had so much fun being disconnected from society - no cell phones or computers - and just letting Roman run through the woods and explore.  He became a gatherer like me and I gave him his own paper bag to fill with different specimens (none of which we'd ever eat, of course, given the possible cross-contamination).  He loved it.  And I couldn't help but revel in this shared experience of gathering food together in a way that had been done by families for centuries all over the world.  It was a bonding experience, and one I look forward to repeating when the season starts up again next summer.

Until then, here are some photos of some of my mushrooms and a quick and delicious recipe for one of my favorite ways to eat wild mushrooms: a simple white wine and cream sauce on tagliatelle pasta.  Yum.

Our findings on that first foray

 My Favorite Mushrooms of Colorado
so far
**CAVEAT: Please do not try to collect these without expert help or knowledge!**

On that first foray we found a great representation of some of the most common mushrooms to be had in the Colorado mountains.  Clockwise from bottom left, here is what we found and dined upon:

1. Suillus Brevipes or Sticky Cap Mushrooms: (the light cream colored ones on the bottom left) Many experienced foragers turn their noses up at Suillus Brevipes but they are one of my favorites.  They are a meaty mushroom in the bolete family that have a dark brownish-grey cap which you peel off in order to eat them.  They are abundant in the pine forests of Colorado.

2. Lycoperdon perlatum or Gem-studded Puffballs: These are the cute little balls that look exactly as their names would suggest.  They are some of the easiest to identify and Roman's favorites.  They have little tiny white "gems" that come off like powder when you touch them.  The key is to make sure they don't have a stem, and to cut through them from top to bottom to make sure they are 100% white in the center, otherwise you might risk eating rotton or poisonous variations.  They have a tender, fluffy consistency.  These are the miniature versions of the Giant Puffballs or Calvatia gigantea.

3. Sarcodon imbricatus or Hawk's Wings: (dark brown scaly ones in the center) These are some of the easiest mushrooms to spot.  They are also very abundant in the CO hills and mountains and have a dark, tell-tale collection of teeth on the underside of the cap.  For this reason they are also often known as hedgehog mushrooms.  These are some of Matt's favorites to eat - though I find their taste strong and strange.  Their texture is similar to that of a portobello, but stronger and, for lack of a better word, gamier.

4. Boletis edulis or Porcini: What you see in my picture are representations of both the King Bolete and the more commonly prized Italian porcini.  The King boletes, as the name implies, are much larger than the oft-pictured small, chestnut colored, fat-stemmed porcini.  Both are delicious but hard to find without any wormholes as they are also favored by insects.  When you can get them, they are wonderful fresh, dry, in pastas and soups.  There is still some debate about whether the North American variation is exactly the same as the European one but that is something I consider something of a ridiculous quibble - they are delicious no matter what.  We ate the small ones fresh and I sliced and dried the larger ones, worms and wormholes and all.  Nothing wrong with a little extra protein. :)

5. Lactarius Deliciosus or Saffron Milk Cap: (the bright orange one with blueish-green spots) These are also some of my favorite mushrooms and often overlooked by porcini / chanterelle obsessed amateur mycologists.  I love their texture and just think they're really, really pretty.  There are some mildly poisonous variations of these but as long as you see that they "lactate" a bright blue-green liquid when cut, you are pretty safe (assuming you've also checked off the list for where and how to find them as well).  I love their orange-saffron color and find their Latin name pretty fun to say as well. :)

6. Yellowish gray ones: can't remember what these are.

7. Auricularia auricula-judae or Wood ears:  We were very fortunate to find some wood ear mushrooms on our first outing.  They are not particularly common here and I love them.  They are commonly found in Asian cooking and have a cartiledge-y texture that I find unique and wonderful, especially in Chinese Hot & Sour Soup.  They grow on the bark of elder trees, most commonly.

 8. Little Brown ones at the bottom: can't remember what these were either.

*  *  *

Wild Mushroom Tagliatelle
Serves 2 good eaters


2-3 tbsp butter1 tbsp olive oil
1 shallot, chopped finely
1-2 cloves garlic, sliced
~1/4 cup good white wine or dry vermouth
~1/4 cup light cream 
1/2 lemon, juiced
1lb wild mushrooms, sliced: you can use a combination as I did or just use porcini / whatever good wild mushroom is available at your local market
2-3 tbsps Italian Parsley, chopped roughly, for garnish
1lb tagliatelle (or pappardelle) pasta
Salt & pepper

Buon appetito!
Heirloom tomato salad with parmigiano and balsamic
to accompany lightly sauteed wild mushroom tagliatelle.


1. Set a pot of salted water to boil for the pasta.  When boiling, and about five minutes from serving time, add the pasta.

2. Add butter and oil to a large sautee pan over medium-high heat and allow the butter to melt completely.  Then add the shallot and garlic and allow to cook for 30 seconds to a minute, tossing them around.

3. To the pan, add the mushrooms and sautee, allowing them to brown on one side for a while before moving them around too much. If the pan gets too dry, add salt and pepper to draw moisture from the mushrooms.  2-3 minutes

4. Once mushrooms are sauteed, add the wine or vermouth and deglaze the pan.  In the meantime, make sure the pasta is going and almost ready.  Then add the cream to the pan and allow it to bubble and simmer for a minute or so in order to reduce. Salt & pepper.

5. Remove the pasta from the water before it is fully cooked (after about 5 minutes or so).  Add to the sautee pan, turn off the heat, and toss gently in the mushroom sauce.  Squirt the juice of half a lemon over the dish and garnish with chopped parsley.  Serve immediately.

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