While autumn thinks it’s sneaking up on me, I’m enjoying every day in my garden. After a cool night of steady drizzle, I rushed outside this morning to coat everything in Deer Off again. (I’m not anti-deer, but they have plenty to eat without feasting on the bounty of my hard work. And they are very unresponsive to shouted abuse, slamming windows and doors, and the powerful and well-aimed jet stream from my garden hoses. The bums.)
Things get a little wilder toward the end of the berm, where the yarrow grows. This area gets less water, and except for the berm and my pots, our entire property is xeriscape. In other words, it requires very little water. We’ve had so much rain that the irrigation system is off, aside from the occasional sessions on my garden, and I try to be a good steward of this most precious resource. (Pass the wild hickory nuts. And if you’re not old enough to remember Euell Gibbons, you probably shouldn’t be reading this blog.)
But toward the house, where three 12-foot floor-to-ceiling dining-room windows overlook the blossoms and mountain range to our south, things become a bit more cilvilized. A dozen foxglove popped up in July, having cowered in the earth during our drought, and the bees from the apiaries over the ridge behind me are gluttonous. Their buzzing song accompanies my gardening, and I try not to think about getting stung, reminding myself that they have other things—like collecting pollen—on their minds. Four hollyhocks pierce heavenward, and I’m eager to see how they look (probably like ineffective sentinels against the . . . deer) in the grand scheme of a garden that really has no grand scheme whatsoever, other than containing what I like.
And my delphinium! Aside from the unfortunate fact that they emit a siren song to . . . deer, these flowers enchant me. While bees don’t seem to care for the tall spires of blue, purple, and white, hummingbirds swarm around the blossoms every morning, dipping in and out as they look for nectar. Bears like the commercial sugar mix that people dangle in weird little hanging plastic decorative pot-like things, but we’re discouraged from using them. My more natural approach attracts plenty of the migrating birds.
Lambs Ear and non-invasive daisies; geum in orange, yellow, and red; some funky red plant (also a deer-magnet) that blooms tall and whose name I never remember; and yarrow in every color known to the gardening world blanket the berm. The foliage is getting so thick that I’m having trouble planting my feet without squashing something, but I tiptoe daintily through everything, arms waving when I lose my balance—a berm is sloped after all, thank you so much— with the agility of a rampaging elephant, leaving just a little death in my wake.
Ranchman the Superhero (my husband), inspired by my raving about ‘shrooming, decided to take a break from his other athletic endeavors (never marry an ex-rancher; they’ll run you into the ground) so that I could introduce him to the fine art of mushroom foraging.
I also suspect that he had pinned his hopes on another fine mushroom savory tart.
Foraging is cyclical. The boletus (porcini) harvest is pretty well over, although we managed to find small ones that will top a homemade pizza this evening. Plenty of poisonous (or at least, highly sketch) mushrooms enticed us, but I went with the if-it-has-gills, leave-it policy. Most gilled mushrooms will trigger a visit to the ER, and who has the time for that?
We discovered that I seem to have an inner radar for porcini. He makes a beeline for poisonous, but pretty, mushrooms. (Another quote from my late mother: “Pretty is as pretty does.” And these pretty little darlings will trigger a long season in the nearest restroom.) Once he recovered from his passion for beauty, he discovered his perfect fungi: the Hawk Wing.
This brown-and-white mushroom with scalloped marks grows quite large and also grows on our land. I’ve been threatening him within an inch of his life if he unleases the weed-whacker on our back-meadow culinary delights.
We found probably a hundred Hawk Wing and harvested quite a few. The large ones can become bitter, so we focused on smaller ones. We wandered, generally never leaving each other’s sight (we’re in the boonies, after all, with bear and cougar), but I’d hear his clear call, “mussssssshROOOMS!” through the trees.
As we foraged, so did the squirrels. I missed the photo of a squirrel carrying a fungi twice his or her size—dinner was on its way to the den. I saw signs of new burrows and wondered if they were made by chipmunks or pine martens. A lot of industrious work was apparent on the forest floor—telling me that I’m not the only one dreading winter, and making preparations.
The forest held other delights as well. Lichen and mosses were beginning to turn frosty, indicating the seasonal change into which we’re tiptoeing. Wildflowers, not as abundant as earlier in the month, graced small clearings. Everywhere I looked, the earth was preparing to be covered in deep snow by Christmas. At 10,000-plus feet altitude, winter is serious business here. We hit three spots that I’d foraged earlier in the month and found a new cluster that has potential for early August.
With all that looking down, carefully searching for small, bulbous brown, white, or pink tops pushing through the conifer-needle carpet, our necks were sore and we were ready to call it a day. But the day itself was so beautiful that we took the long way home, choosing a National Forest road over a second pass, moving slowly, rocking and rolling through ruts and washes in a world that’s starting to show signs of the next seasonal change.
We’re down to the wire here, and I’m wondering how many more fishing trips, rounds of golf and mushrooming, and days in the garden are ahead of me before things slow down. But slowing down is good, too, because it brings Thanksgiving and Christmas, and family and friends, and all the cooking that accompanies autumn. So I guess that I’m kind of like that little squirrel, thinking ahead and preparing for the future.
But if I ever encounter a mushroom twice as big as me, you can bet I’ll leave it for Ranchman to carry. He’s a steady beast of burden, and I feed him well!
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.