Fall Foraging for Feathery Fungi

A cluster of hens at the base of an old oak tree. 

A cluster of hens at the base of an old oak tree. 

Even with schoolwork piling up I find myself heading out to the forest with basket in hand and mushrooms on my mind. Geology test? It can wait. What could possibly be more important than stumbling upon the motherload of all foraging finds? As the leaves crunch beneath my feet and the cold air enters my lungs the assignments and reports melt away. I've found the perfect study break in a perfect fall day in Connecticut. 

Foragers are scrambling to get their last fungal outings of the season in as winter's sharp breath starts to creep back into the Northeast. While the bright orange and red crowns of the changing hardwoods are enough to blow away most people, a select few are more interested in the base of these trees. This is where the culinary treasure of the fall grows: the hen of the woods. 

Grifola frondosa is more often than not found nestled up against the trunks of ancient oak trees. These large grey shelf fungi resemble a plump mother hen covering up her eggs, hence the name hen of the woods. With luck, and the right weather, one can stumble upon a tree housing a whole flock of hens at its base. Hens are loyal to their host trees, growing back reliably year after year. Starting at the end of September and going into November, foragers wander the woods squinting at the base of oak trees in an attempt to distinguish crisp leaves from the wavy caps of a hen in its prime. Sautéed, roasted, stewed, or creamed, the earthy flavor of these meaty fungi has both foragers and chefs yearning during the autumn season.

A 15lb Hen of the woods too big for the basket!

A 15lb Hen of the woods too big for the basket!

As I walk I notice some young honey mushrooms poking up in clusters along the path. Birds chirp overhead, warning about the coming cold. I continue past the mushrooms down some rock ledges that were carved out by the glaciers 15,000 years ago. After descending down the ledges, I cross a creek carrying away last night's rain. I glance up the hill and see my destination; even 30 yards away I can see that this oak is not alone. As I reach the massive tree the afternoon sun illuminates dense clusters of healthy hens. As I cut the fungi from their mycelial roots I feel a level of accomplishment that the books and tests cannot provide. 

This harvest marks the end of my 2015 season, and what a season it was! It's back to the books for my senior year, but I couldn't be more excited to continue Walker's Goods From The Woods after graduation. While my wicker basket collects dust on the top shelf of my closet, and snowfall covers the forest floor, I'll be busy planning for the upcoming foraging season. Up next: springtime morels, ramps and fiddleheads!

The Wild Plate #2: Creamy Black Trumpet Pasta

"What's your favorite wild mushroom?"

Tough question for a mushroom hunter. Luckily, black trumpets exist. All edible wild mushrooms are great for different reasons--the meatiness of chicken of the woods, the bright color and crisp texture of lobster mushrooms, the versatility of chanterelles--but black trumpets are the whole package. Their fruity yet earthy flavor is unmatched. Their firm texture is distinct. They're easy to clean. They don't spoil easily. In fact, their flavor is even enhanced when dried. Hell, even just experiencing the perfumy scent filling your nostrils when picking trumpets is worth the effort. The only problem with them is that spotting a cluster of trumpets among the leaf litter is about as easy as convincing my eight-year-old cousin that there is more to life than playing Angry Birds. 

But once you get your eyes on, you'll start to see black clumps poking up all over the place. The hardest part is finding that first trumpet. They often grow in abundance in hardwood forests with partial shade. I usually find them in beech forests, or on grassy hillsides with young oak or hickory trees around. The rich flavor of these mushrooms is best paired with lighter flavors like cream or mild fish. Here's a simple yet killer recipe for a black trumpet pasta (seriously, one of the best things I've ever tasted). 

Creamy Black Trumpet Pasta

(Serves 2)

Ingredients:

  1. 1lb fresh pasta (fettuccine, linguini, or spaghetti are best)
  2. 2 cups black trumpets, cleaned
  3. 1 shallot or small white onion, chopped
  4. 2/3 cup heavy cream
  5. 2 tablespoons butter
  6. parmesan to taste
  7. salt and black pepper to taste

Heat up butter in cast iron skillet on medium heat. Add chopped shallots and cook until tender. When shallots start to brown, add black trumpets. Add cream after one minute, and reduce heat so contents are simmering. Let simmer for five minutes, allowing cream to reduce and thicken. Cook pasta to preferred texture, then drain. Add cooked pasta to skillet and toss over medium heat for a minute. Remove from heat, add parmesan, and serve hot. 

The Good Type of Commercial Foraging

As a hardworking young person trying to start a business that is considered unique and unfamiliar by the general public, I get very little criticism in regards to my ventures. Most people lack the necessary knowledge on the subject of wild foods to give me much feedback on how I run my budding business. I get a lot of "Wow! Wild mushrooms?” and "You're such an entrepreneur!” but the constructive advice and negative responses have been nonexistent. That's why I was so surprised when I recently saw a highly critical post in the comments section of my TEDxTalk that read: 

While I can agree that collecting your own food from the wild will foster an appreciation for conservation and desire to preserve the sources of potential food, I am appalled by your need to monetize foraging, especially for fungi. As a forager (I eschew the tag "professional") and wild foods educator, I would much rather teach 100 people how to forage for themselves and their families in a sustainable manner than pillage a forest to supply raw ingredients for 100 privileged patrons of upscale, overpriced and over-hyped restaurants for money. Sad."

Ouch. What makes it even worse is that the commenter has a very good wild foods blog that I have been reading for years. For the sake of comparison, that's like being an aspiring guitarist and having Jimi Hendrix tell you that you're not only awful at guitar, but so bad that you are ruining music for everyone else.

This comment illustrates a divide within the realm of fungally oriented people. Yes, believe it or not, not everyone obsessed with mushrooms gets along. There are recreational foragers who enjoy picking mushrooms for themselves, as well as sometimes educating others on foraging. Then there are the commercial pickers, who forage and sell mushrooms for a living. As seen in the comment above, recreational foragers tend to think commercial pickers are a destructive presence when in the woods. This negative perception is pretty spot-on in many cases; lots of commercial pickers tend to be totally driven by making money, and lack any sort of care towards nature. Commercial pickers usually aren't too fond of recreational pickers either, and are often angered by the idea of competition in the form of these part-time pickers (Check out Langdon Cook's book The Mushroom Hunter for more on this mysterious world). I find myself squat in the middle of these groups, as I love sharing my knowledge with as many people as possible, but am also trying to make a living off of the land. However, I think what I've created with Walker's Goods From The Woods is far more than just a commercial foraging operation focused on raking in cash. I've actually been meaning to post about the type of community-supported entity my business is becoming, and this critical comment seems to be the perfect opportunity. 

Some plump chanterelles plucked from the forest floor.

Some plump chanterelles plucked from the forest floor.

For starters, my primary reason for being out in the woods picking mushrooms day in and day out is not because I make money doing this. Quite frankly, it is because I'm at my happiest when exploring the woods. Every mushroom I pick is as meaningful as the last, and filling a basket with chanterelles or lobster mushrooms really is the most fulfilling feeling I've felt to date. The ticks and mosquitoes would have run me out of the woods long ago if I didn't feel this way. I don't think anyone would argue that trying to make a living doing what you truly love is a bad thing. I'm also certainly not bulldozing my way through the woods destroying everything in my path. I make sure to forage sustainably, never wiping out the entirety of a patch as to ensure its future perseverance. 

Personally, I think it is a misconception that harvesting larger quantities of mushrooms automatically makes it an unsustainable practice. People in cultures all over the world have been commercially foraging mushrooms for hundreds of years. Fungi are inherently a sustainable food source in that they reproduce both sexually and asexually. The "mushroom" is really just the sexual organ of the underground fungus. If you remove it, the organism can still reproduce asexually. There have actually been a few studies, including this one that took place in Switzerland, which found the long-term harvest of edible fungi does not negatively affect the future growth or diminish the population size of fungal populations. Nonetheless, I try to leave as small an impact on the natural world as I can, and do as much as I can to ensure that future generations will be able to enjoy the patches I forage. 

This comment not only called me out, but also called out high-end restaurants. I understand the stigma against fancy restaurants that seek out wild foods, as many of these places are elitists in many respects. However, I've found that the chefs that I sell to are truly remarkable in the kitchen. They think of inventive ways to cook the ingredients I bring them that I would never be able to think of myself. With that being said, restaurants are my secondary outlet for selling, with farmers' markets being my primary priority. I understand that not everyone has the money to go to these venues, and that's why I'm dedicated to getting my products directly to the public. 

2015 TNC Mushroom foray at spring pond bog

2015 TNC Mushroom foray at spring pond bog

Establishing myself at the local farmers' markets has created a direct link to the local community, which has been the perfect opportunity for me to share my knowledge with the general public. Every week people bring pictures of mushrooms to the markets for me to ID, and people are constantly telling me that they've started to notice fungi everywhere after enjoying my mushrooms. While I do also lead educational mushroom forays around the area, I think the farmers' markets have been the most successful way to spread awareness about wild foods. I've become the go-to person for everything fungal in my area, which has really helped to make my business more of a community-oriented enterprise. Another way I have gotten the community involved has been by seeking out individual agreements with landowners in which I forage their land, and in return give them a portion of my findings. This has turned out to be a great way to open up the world of wild mushrooms to people who are interested, but may not be able to actively forage themselves. For example, many of the elderly members of my community have asked me to explore their properties. Of course, I always offer to bring the landowners out with me to teach them what is growing in their woods. 

A big part of becoming a foraging business with a community focus has been to buck the image that commercial foragers are secretive, sketchy, and even unlawful people. Foragers have been known to trespass, and are often found lurking around nature preserves and conserved lands. Instead of actively deceiving the conservation groups maintaining these lands, I've chosen to support them. I'm currently working on multiple agreements with local land conservation groups in which they will let me sustainably forage their land in return for a portion of my profits. In turn, this money will go back into protecting these areas by helping to pay property taxes and management fees. It is important for me to be a part of the solution instead of the problem when it comes to conserving the beautiful ecosystems of the Adirondacks. 

As the summer has progressed, I've honed in on three distinguished themes--touching on all three in the above paragraphs--that can be used as a framework for my business. They are as follows: the local sale of wild foods, public education, and land conservation. All three themes revolve around the local community, which made me realize that my vision is somewhat like a community supported agriculture venture (CSA). Instead of supporting me with money, the locals are supporting me with the access to their land and their willingness to learn. Instead of receiving a share, they receive wild foods either directly from me or at the markets, as well as an opportunity to learn about foraging. So in a way, my vision is really a community supported foraging business, or a "CSF". So here's to all the progress so far this summer, and a new vision for Walker's Goods From The Woods!

The Wild Plate #1: Buttermilk Quiche with Milkweed Buds and Oyster Mushrooms

The Wild Plate will be a series of wild food recipes posted biweekly on the blog.

Dense clusters of buds have appeared on the roadside patches of milkweed, and the time is now to harvest these culinary jewels before they burst into their flower form. Milkweed is one of the most versatile wild edibles around; the young shoots can be harvested in spring, the flower buds in early summer, the flowers in mid summer, and the seed pods in late summer. All these plant parts are delicious in their own way, but the flower buds reign supreme in my eyes. Not sure how to use this plentiful wild ingredient? When in doubt, make a quiche! Milkweed buds, along with some wild oyster mushrooms, will make a pretty unforgettable buttermilk quiche. Here's my recipe:

Quiche Crust

Ingredients:

  1. 1 cup flour
  2. 1/2 teaspoon salt
  3. 1/4 cup olive oil
  4. 1/4 cup cold water

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Mix flour and salt in bowl, and then mix water and oil in separate bowl. Pour water mixture into flour mixture and whisk until smooth. Form dough into 9 inch pie pan. Cook for five minutes at 400 degrees.

Quiche Filling

Ingredients:

  1. 1 cup buttermilk
  2. 3 large eggs, beaten
  3. 1 cup cheddar cheese
  4. 1 1/3 cups milkweed buds
  5. 1 1/3 cups oyster mushrooms
  6. 2 cloves garlic
  7. 1/2 onion
  8. 1 tablespoon olive oil
  9. 1 teaspoon black pepper

Blanch milkweed buds in boiling water for one minute, set aside to drain off and dry. Dice onion and mushrooms, finely chop garlic. Place mushrooms and garlic in pan with a tablespoon of olive oil. Cook on medium heat until mushrooms release water and garlic is browned. 

In a large bowl combined buttermilk, eggs, cheese, onions, milkweed, mushrooms, and pepper (Make sure milkweed is dry). Stir until vegetables are evenly distributed throughout mixture. Fill partially cooked pie crust with mixture. Bring oven down to 325 degrees and cook for 50 minutes, or until a fork comes out clean when inserted into quiche. Once done, let rest for 5 minutes. Serve hot. 

 

Rain Rain Go Away...But Come Back Next Week

My car kicks up a thick trail of dust as I drive down the old dirt logging road while listening to NPR breakdown what they are calling the wettest May ever recored in the United States. Not in the Adirondacks. Nope, it seems the rain has opted to let this great mountain range stay parched while the rest of the country struggles to soak in the excess of water. The morel season has suffered due to the lack of moisture. None the less, I continue driving along franticly glancing into the surrounding woods in search of a fungal bounty. 

A RAINY VIEW FROM THE LAKE CHAMPLAIN FERRY.

A RAINY VIEW FROM THE LAKE CHAMPLAIN FERRY.

Fast forward three weeks. The climate in the Northeast abruptly one-eightied, resulting in an onslaught of heavy rain starting on the first of June. While the farmers struggle to work their crops into the saturated soils, and the hikers impatiently wait out the weather indoors, I've trudged around the muck in bliss. The quick turnaround from bone-dry to sopping wet has concentrated the usually spread out debuts of the summer mushrooms to a window of just a few weeks. With the storms gone, and the forecast calling for sunny days, the fungal flushes are exploding. This is making for a very exciting final week of June, and July has the potential to be epic. 

Chanterelle buttons have already started poking up out of the leaf duff, the medicinal reishi fungus seems to be growing out of every dead hemlock in the region, and the highly sought after porcini (Boletus edulis) has made some early appearances. I've kept busy foraging for the strikingly beautiful and seemingly out of place crown-tipped coral fungi, but am now ready to spend my days hauling baskets of apricot scented chanterelles and meaty chicken of the woods to local restaurants.

TEN POUNDS OF CORAL FUNGI GOING INTO A LOCAL FARM'S CSA share.

TEN POUNDS OF CORAL FUNGI GOING INTO A LOCAL FARM'S CSA share.

During the off-season one almost forgets about all that life hiding under the soil, just waiting to explode upwards. Just seeing the new fungal diversity coerced out of the ground by the rains has gotten me excited for what is to come. The waiting period is most definitely over. Now here's to a week of clear skies (and then some more storms to ensure July is really special). 

Happy foraging. 

 

TEDx Talk: Foraging for Mushrooms and Reconnecting with Our Food

Last April I presented a TED Talk at Connecticut College entitled 'Foraging for Mushrooms and Reconnecting with Our Food'. I discuss the many amazing functions fungi play in our ecosystems, as well as my experience of foraging and selling wild mushrooms. Give it a watch, and spread the word that foraging can help build a stronger food culture here in the United States!

Chaga Climb

As I reminisce back to my childhood when I relished the opportunity to climb any tree, I ponder my options for how I will scale the old yellow birch standing in front of me. I could try to slink up the tree by bear-hugging the trunk and slowly inching up, or I could leverage my way up by wedging my body between the birch trunk and the dead tree growing parallel. The last option would be to reluctantly start the journey back to the car with hatchet over shoulder and an empty basket. 

While the third option may be the safest and most logical, the prospect of chipping away at the massive growth of chaga sitting twenty feet above me is far too tempting. Chaga, or Inonotus obliquus, is a fungus known to commonly parasitize birch trees. The mycelium of the fungi form hard black growths on the trunk of birch trees that resemble large burnt tree worts. Appetizing, right? 

Luckily, chaga isn't sought after for culinary purposes, but rather for the medicinal qualities of the fungus. Chaga is a nutrient powerhouse, as it is packed with antioxidants, vitamins B, D, and K, and minerals such as iron, copper, and zinc. For centuries, the fungus has been used as a folk medicine to battle auto-immune diseases, improve digestion, and relieve stress. Recently, research has been conducted that shows the betulinic acid found in chaga actively destroys cancerous cells in people. As a result, there is much more of a market for chaga products including supplements, teas, and tinctures than there has been in the past. 

chaga tea can be made by simmering chunks of the fungus in water on low heat for long periods of time. 

chaga tea can be made by simmering chunks of the fungus in water on low heat for long periods of time. 

I place my basket at the foot of the tree and begin my ascent with hatchet in hand. I dig my knees into the punky wood of the dead tree and press my back against the hard trunk of the living birch. Slowly and surely I shimmy upwards. I finally reach the growth and start to chip away with my hatchet. Each swing reveals more of the marbled orange interior of the fungus. Small pieces fall into the basket below with a satisfying thud. 

I make sure to leave a fair amount of chaga on the tree to give it the opportunity to grow back. Sustainably harvesting chaga is more important than ever before with the increase in demand. I arrive back on ground level in one piece and collect the chips of chaga that missed the target on the way down. Full basket in hand, I head home to process and dehydrate this ancient medicinal fungus for the market. 

Mindful Foraging

I've managed to arrive in the Adirondacks just in time to watch the tail end of spring get chased away by humid summer days and roaring thunderstorms. I wanted to at least get a half day of foraging in before the heavy rains, so I set out for one of my favorite wild edible hotspots. I survey the roadsides for patches of wild asparagus and stinging nettles as I drive down the winding country roads. The drainage ditches and fencerows are just beginning to fill up with flowers and weeds. 

I park the car and head into the woods. The trees block out the sun with their newly acquired headdresses, creating a cool and still atmosphere within the forest. The tiny purple flowers of wild violets pop out of the leaf duff in every direction, and just like that, I've spotted my first wild ingredient. Wild violets are so common throughout the United States that many consider them garden weeds. What most people don't know is both the little flowers and leaves are edible. The leaves can be used in salads while the flowers can be candied, jellied, or used as a garnish.

I lazily meander among the trees picking a few flowers here and there until I come to a slow-moving stream. I follow the stream until it opens up into a meadow of ferns. I immediately know I've hit the jackpot: ostrich fern fiddleheads. I start breaking off the little furls one by one, making sure to only take one or two per grouping. Unlike violets, fiddleheads are often victim to overharvesting. This proves to be a conundrum for me, as I'm a forager looking to make a living off ingredients like fiddleheads. I harvest two or three pounds of the curled ferns, leaving about two-thirds of the patch untouched. 

I continue to follow the stream downhill until I come to a dirt road being choked out by thick patches of stinging nettles. There's no pacing myself here; I throw on my gloves and start cutting the nettles at their base. Nettles grow everywhere, taste delicious, and are considered a super food, but most people fear them because of the sharp pain that occurs when the plants contact skin. However, cooking nettles will quickly render them harmless. I fill two large bags up to bring home for nettle pesto. 

As I make my way back to the car I reflect on my bounty. I think about my responsibility to mindfully harvest these ingredients. There is a delicate balance when trying to make a full-time living from wild foods; take too much and you damage the natural ecology of the area; take too little and you can't support yourself. This is why I make sure not to overlook abundant species like violets and nettles. Harvesting these common species means I can take less of the delicate species like ostrich ferns. The sound of building thunder brings me away from my thoughts, and the first raindrops fall just as I reach the car. I pull onto the road and start thinking about the hot cup of nettle tea waiting for me at home. 

Ramps Revealed

The appearance of the beautifully smooth leaves of springtime ramps, or spring onions, has confirmed that this endless winter has finally, well, ended. As the Northeast happily leaves behind the last cold days of the season, the muddy forest floors are starting to show some signs of color. Bits of green are popping up all around, and there is nothing more exciting than seeing the first patches of ramps form. 

These delicious members of the Allium family are often the first prized wild edibles to appear after the snow has melted. Normally, this would mean we'd be enjoying ramps by mid-March, but this year we've had to wait until halfway through April. Ramps grow in thick patches in moist sandy soil with a rich layer of organic matter on top. Pay close attention to hillsides and along streams, you might even find some morels too! Ramps have long green leaves with stems that turn pink as they enter the ground. Identification is easy, as breaking off a piece of leaf and smelling the oniony scent is a dead giveaway. 

The great thing about wild onion is that every part is delicious in its own way; the long leaves have a subtle peppery taste while the underground bulbs are like garlic and onion mashed together in one. The leaves are perfect for a springtime salad along with young dandelion leaves and diced field garlic. The bulbs can be sautéed, added to soups or risottos, or even pickled. While delicious, harvesting significant amounts from a single population can be damaging, so make sure to take only a few ramps here and there, or take just the leaves. 

It's officially ramp season, and that means morels should be popping up soon too. I'm sure I'm not the only one who was starting to get cabin fever this winter, so pick up your foraging baskets and head for the woods!