In a few months I’ll be cross-country skiing while humming Christmas carols—a sobering thought.
So like everyone else in my valley I’m madly squeezing in every last drop of outdoor activity while the sun shines warmly. That means golf and fly-fishing, gardening and mushrooming. A world of porcinis (boletus) still awaits me on the mountains, but the weather is getting drier (not good for mushrooms, which are mainly water), and the ‘shrooms are getting bigger and mushier, more likely to have been marked by a toothy chipmunk or other small animal, less suitable for my purposes.
There are plenty of fine specimins still to be found, and I’m trying to forage every week now. That’s hard while preparing to co-lead a trip to Israel and Jordan in a couple of months and to teach adult Sunday School starting in just a few weeks, plus heading to a fishing competition in northwestern Canada in days. Things like bike rides and dinners out have to wait until mushroom season ends, and I schedule every week’s activities with an eye toward what I’m less likely to be able to do the next week.
But when I’m on the mountain, I cover more territory now. Seasonal campers are long gone, the sputtering roar of dirt bikes has fallen silent, and fewer foragers have pulled off onto the side of the dirt road. I show the same courtesy while mushoroming that my fly-fishing guide does while maneuvering his boat, never cutting in front of another forager/angler to steal his/her territory. Fewer foragers means more ground to cover politely.
But mushrooms like these are scarce commodities—and high-priced ingredients on the open market—that flavor soups and sauces when the snowflakes fly. They bring a little summer richness into the white bleakness of winter and remind me of warmer days, sweeter scents (snow doesn’t have a scent), bigger adventures. Mushrooming is an Easter-egg hunt for adults. You never know what you’ll find.
So looking ahead and given that my divorce from turkey is finalized, I’m serving Wagyu tenderloin for Thanksgiving, complete with sherry-porcini gravy (and a few dried currants from my bushes). So I’m slicing mushrooms to dehydrate (I feel like such a Mountain Mama), as well as quartering small ones to freeze. I’m queen of the slow-cooker in the colder months, and I’ll be thankful for the harvest I’ve put away. (My husband will be thankful, too. He’s a fan of good food.)
And when I taste that deep, earthy porcini flavor I’ll think of days scrambling up cutaways in the forest and mountain-goating down steep slopes with far less grace. I’ll remember the scent of warm pine and spruce, the chattering of small mammals, the stomp of big game somewhere up in the trees. The quiet camaraderie of fellow foragers, the joy of finding a field, the excitment in of carrying a heavy bag (five gallons is the daily limit) of porcini back to the vehicle. The knowledge that by foraging, I’m engaging in a practice that’s as old as time.
And I’ll dream of next August and September, when these babies pop up through the organic material on the forest floor. I’ll remember friendships I’ve made and shared while foraging in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, where I’m fortunate to live year-round.
If a picture says a thousand words, then the one above is War and Peace by Tolstoy—all 1200-plus pages of it. This is a king boletus, or porcini. He’s enormous. Fully six-inches-plus in diameter at the cap.
I stood on the mountainside, my heart beating more quickly as I gazed longinly at the sight of him. Was I hallucinating? Surely he was too good to be true. I looked around to see if anyone saw us, and we were alone.
He was mine.
Ranchman was up in the woods somewhere, communing with nature, unaware of the competition for my affection. The nearest road was closed, so most people weren’t venturing this far on foot. I was careful; it’s unwise to announce a relationship like this one too soon.
The coast was clear.
He shouldn’t have been here, out in the open, shamelessly sharing his handsome self with the world. He was firm and muscular, worthy of a shirtless photo on a romance novel. He should’ve been harvested weeks ago. Animals should’ve eaten him, or at least left tooth marks on him. (Okay. It’s a RACY romance novel.) He should’ve been full of worms. (He wasn’t, but there’s a pretty great analogy with online dating right there if stories my adult daughter tells me are true, and I trust her.
But instead he’d saved itself for me. And I loved him for his faithful devotion. (If only all relationships were this easy.) Then I cut him down in the prime of life and took him home (insert evil laughter).
To be continued next summer, when I sneak to this spot again . . .
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!
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.