Our lows are in the forties now—great sleeping weather!—and the first yellow lines lace the leaves like veins in a body. In two weeks gigantic splashes of yellow (aspens) and persimmon (serviceberry) will splash the hillsides as if a greater power had a temper tantrum with a handful of crayons. Random groves of flame-tipped aspens will flambouyantly overshadow everything.
While my literary agent shops my latest manuscript I’m preparing for what comes next—a season of snow and cold—just like my four-legged friends. About the best that can be said for winter here is that we have beautiful powder for skiing and snowboarding. For the mere mortals among us, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing draw us outdoors.
Thanks to one of the best mushroom-foraging seasons in years I have enough dried porcini and hawkswing to flavor soups throughout the winter. I’ll make a fine sherry-based porcini gravy to serve with our Thanksgiving tenderloins, feeling absolutely no guilt that turkey and I have finalized our divorce, and I no longer have to serve the bird.
I returned from the fishing tournament a couple of weeks ago, victorious with a chinook that was half-a-pound heavier than my daughter’s largest.
In true Big-Fish-Goddess fasion I landed the salmon, and its smaller friend, in the last thirty minutes of the competition. (As the tournamnet master weighed the winning fish, I distinctly heard my daughter say something unladylike before erupting in somewhat maniacal, hysterical laughter.) But she boated a thirty-eight-pound halibut—like hauling a Steinway grand from a trench deep on the ocean floor while praying that a shark doesn’t take it for a snackiepoo—so claimed bragging rights in the bottom-dweller division.
Bear activity here has reached peak proportions, and I never step into the garden without checking first for a hungry predator. The spots on the fawns are fading, and every doe looks exhausted. I stopped spraying Deer Off a couple of weeks ago, welcoming them to gorge themselves in my garden as they brace for a tough winter.
I’m riding Penelope twenty miles a week—she’s quite popular with the Farmers Market crowd—and golf is a great way to take advantage of a beautiful season in a magnificent place. (I’m thankful.) Next week my fly-fishing guide, who became a close friend so long ago that he’s family now, and I will end the season with our traditional meatloaf sandwiches, Fritos, and pumpkin cookies. We’ll be the boat of semi-geezers, catching and releasing loads of trout, peeping at the changing leaves, laughing at the noises we now make as we struggle with a fish or the oars.
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 . . .
“The hills are alive . . .” with MUSHROOMS! I thought the harvest was winding down, but I was so wrong! We’re having a banner year, our mountaintops still littered with porcini. (Boletus, if you’re into Latin.)
An afternoon of foraging netted a few baby porcinis and two or three fine examples of king (or prince) boletus—the best of the best. I’ve had to find these fields on my own, with only vague references as to their location. People guard mushroom fields as fiercely as social-security numbers in these parts!
Ranchman was dying for “mushroom-something,” so I assessed the ingredients at hand and decided on pizza. While the oven preheated I cleaned and chopped the smaller porcinis (four cups) and retrieved fresh marjoram and thyme (two big tablespoons—we like FLAVOR in our meals) from the back deck.
Then it was time to saute everything while he fetched the cauliflower crust from the downstairs freezer. After cooking the ‘shrooms in a couple of tablespoons of fine butter, a (gushing) squirt of truffled olive oil, and a liberal pinch of salt, the mushrooms and herbs began to carmelize. The windows were open, and I’m surprised the scent didn’t draw our next-door neighbor or the local bears—one is a 500-pound cinnamon colored black bear, a VERY big bear.
With Ranchman breathing down my neck, I assembled the pizzas. Fresh bruschetta topping made from local farmers-market tomatoes, good-quality mozzerella from a nearby dairy, sliced black olives, and shaved perocino romano all but covered the crust before I popped the pizzas in the oven and made a salad.
In twelve minutes we stood in front of the oven door, looking at dinner, watching the cheese bubble. In fifteen I pronounced dinner to be ready, and we ate one whole pizza, saving the other for dinner tonight. This morning, though, I discoverd that Ranchman had reverted to his collgiate self and indulged in pizza for breakfast. Even though our season is already beginning to taper toward autumn, he’s volunteering to go back to the mountaintops for more mushroom foraging if I’m willing to cook them.
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!