Some clocks tick. Others chime. This time of year, mine bleats.
One of the largest sheep ranches in the US is downvalley from me, and the owners import Peruvian gauchos every summer to herd flocks over vast swaths of BLM land that roll right up to the back of my property. The sheep eat noxious weeds and keep the grasses in check as we head more deeply into our dry wildfire season. (The light in these pictures depicts the passage of time. When I shot the photo of the dogs and scattered sheep, the sun hadn’t hit the mountainside yet. The photo above, and of the gaucho below, were taken two hours later.)
The sheep are a bit of a rude awakening when my garden is in full bloom, although August and September reveal their own unique beauty. The elusive foxglove (that pops up when it wants to) appeared this year. The Eidelweiss wave in the breeze, while the hollyhocks are so well-staked that they can’t move at all. Corsican violets compete with lavander as most-fragrant flower, and buzzing bees provide a peaceful soundtrack as I weed and prune. (I’m personally responsible for contributing to the apiaries on the hillside over the ridge, where someone is stockpiling wildflower honey.) Deer Off coats the delphimiums, which beats me sitting on the front terrace in a floppy hat, armed with the water hose on “Jet” to try (unsuccessfully) to repel the hungry beasts and alerting neighbors that the crazy woman is trying to drown the deer again. (Guilty.)
But back to the sheep, and the real truth behind their appearance: They telegraph that summer is turning toward autumn—not a welcome thought in a place where I had two inches of snow in late June. The animals always awaken us early one morning, bleating softly, or the muffled shout of shepherds or barking sheep dogs tease us out of sleep. It’s ridiculous how excited we get, flapping from thebed to open the blinds to try to spot the small creamy dots, or large swirling blob that looks like a living organism.
Given that I’m a city girl born and bred, the herd reminds me of how different life is in a small mountain community. I don’t mark seasons here by realizing that it’s time for the state fair, or that the streets are busier at 7:45 a.m. because of school runs and lumbering yellow buses being driven by harried-looking people.
Our seasons creep in more gradually and naturally at altitude, and I become aware of changing light and bleating sheep, the first red-tinged leaf on the wild geranium, or the sudden absence of robins. And weirdly enough I don’t completely dread the transformation, even though winter is always two months too long. Our summer is so vibrant, so powerful, that I respect that the earth needs to rest and gather the energy (and moisture) for another spectacular summer. Our seasons are a perfectly appropriate cycle, tying me to a bigger place, a greater purpose, a life beyond my own small world.
In just a few months I’ll be taking my cross-country skis in to be waxed. We’ll blow out the irrigation system so that pipes don’t crack beneath the deep snows. My husband will drag the winter tires out of The Dungeon (our storage), and we’ll take the vehicles in to switch out wheels.
I couldn’t create a less-appealing title, but this one makes me laugh, so enjoy it with me, please.
I want to rave about what I did with the wild mushrooms I foraged last week, especially since late summer is a time of bounty, and autumn (which will sweep across my mountain top too soon, in only weeks) is harvest in so many parts of the US.
Prepare to drool.
I fetched my brown paper bag from the refrigerator and dumped three pounds of mushrooms on a towel. Some had gone from bad to worse and were just too ugly to eat. (To paraphrase my late mother’s quote last week, beauty may only be skin deep, but I’m still not eating something that resembles pond scum.) I washed them, removing any dirty parts, and assessed what was left.
A devoted forager would make stock from the homely ‘shrooms, freezing them for the winter soups that sustain us where winter is a verb. I probably discarded more than necessary before I chopped the keepers. (Note the three beautiful boletus—porcini—between 9:00 and 11:00 o’clock in the photo below.)
Then I sauted chopped scallions in olive oil and butter, adding a tablespoon of truffle oil to the mix. (Truffle oil and mushrooms are my fall dynamic duo. Watch out, champagne and gougeres, those tiny French cheese puffs that melt in my mouth!) When the scallions were soft, I added the freshly harvested mushrooms, plus fresh marjoram and thyme from the herb pot on the back deck.
When most of the juices were consolidated, I added port wine, sherry and chicken broth. I then reduced the mixture before adding a healthy dollop of cream fraiche.
At this point I could have served the mushrooms over pasta, blended them into risotto, or eaten them right from the pan. (BUSTED!) But I had plans for them that included two partially pre-baked whole-wheat pastry shells sprinkled (while still warm) with fine pecorino-Romano cheese. Into the shells they went, topped with more cheese, then into the oven for about 45 minutes.
The results were amazing. Ranchman the Superhero (my husband of more than thirty years) said that he didn’t know what he was eating, but that it was “the best of whatever it was he had ever eaten.” That’s a compliment from someone who grew up eating beef three times a day. (And he’s still alive and healthy. The human body is an amazing thing.)
The entire production took an hour and a half, primarily because I did brain surgery with a paring knife during the cleaning process. (I am as disinterested in protein via the worms that love these mushrooms as I am in pond scum.)
While I was working over the sink, stirring the reduction and sniffing my way past the oven, I marveled that such deliciousness could come from my backyard. I thought about settlers crossing these demanding mountain ranges. Of grouse and elk and trout that inhabit these parts. This land can provide for those who know what to look for and are willing to hunt and forage and fish.
I’m hooked. I’ve planned another mushroom expedition before the season ends late next month. If I score more boletus, I’ll freeze them to add to my Thanksgiving dressing.
Summer is finally in full swing on my mountaintop, and we’re squeezing every ray of sunshine from every beautiful day. Fishing and hiking, golfing and gardening fill the calendar as my literary agent shops the first book in my latest mystery series.
And although epic days are normal here this time of year, and this summer—with late snows and heavy rains, without wildfires polluting our air—is magnificent, today I did something extraordinary.
I went mushroom hunting.
Before you yawn and think of a checkout line, I’m not talking about walking supermarket aisles looking for shrink-wrapped boxes of Baby Bellas. I’m talking about driving to the top of the pass—roughly 11,000 feet in altitude—wearing a sun hat, raingear and sturdy, waterproof boots to search for morels, boletus (porcini), hawk wing, and a mysterious little pink mushroom that smells like shrimp. (I looked for other fungi, too, but the names never stick. Maybe next year.)
I have a healthy respect for anything that can hurt me—the bears and cougars living in the valley snaking beneath my office window come to mind—even though I’ve waded out of nearly waist-deep African rivers swollen by the Big Rains and caught piranhas from the Amazon. And I live in the Rockies, where “magic mushrooms” are hallucinogenic, so have observed the “fungi-weird.” So choosing life and lucidity, I harnessed my risk-averse personality and ‘shroomed with a mycologist. That’s your first lesson in mushrooming: Always go with someone who can tell you which fungi are deadly—because several mushrooms will kill you, or make you so sick that you might wish you were dead.
Searching for these gems, some just barely erupting through a pine-and-spruce-needle carpet, was a giant Easter egg hunt for chefs. I had a blast scrambling through the forest, grasping my (sheathed) knife in my gloved hand, looking for disturbances or discrepancies in the dark organic matter covering an earth that thirty feet of snow will blanket in six months.
As the mycologist explained the relationship between spruce trees and porcinis, and all about mycelium—a white webbing that is earth’s biggest living organism and a fungi superhighway—I thought of the tightly entwined and ever-expanding network of relationships in nature, and about the diversity of wildflowers, mushrooms, and birds.
Then I stumbled (yes, literally almost fell on it) across the most beautiful mushroom of the day. The Aminita is a red marvel with white dots—and also deadly. As my late mother would say, “Beauty is only skin deep.”
I guess that her words of Southern wisdom apply to fungi as well as humans, although I do hope that you’re having a beautiful summer and enjoying the great outdoors.