It’s the largest living organism in the world and lurks in the shadows. It provides the network that permits communication across all things deep in the forest. It can bring fear to the uninitiated and a smile to the face of those who know its secrets. It goes by many Latin names to distinguish its membership in the gang. Some have taken names that describe their personal character like “Puffball” or “Stinkhorn.” There’s a fungus among us and the Bunkycooks recently took to the road to uncover this wild mystery.
The mushroom is often misunderstood, especially when it is growing wild in the forest. This year has been especially rainy and ideal for growing certain varieties of mushrooms. If you are not familiar with wild mushrooms, you may profile them against white button mushrooms that are purchased in styrofoam boxes at your local supermarket. Most of us assume that wild mushrooms will make us sick, kill us, or take us on a psychedelic journey from whence there’s no return.
There are over 10,000 different types of mushrooms and while most (96%) are not typically eaten, 50% are not edible (too tough, woody, or indigestible), 20% are “edible but regrettable” and can make you sick, and finally, 25% are “edible but forgettable,” meaning they just don’t taste good but are not poisonous. One percent can kill you, which means that only 4% of the mushroom varieties are sought after for food.
We traveled to Asheville, North Carolina a few weeks ago to meet with William Dissen, Executive Chef and Owner of The Market Place Restaurant, and The Mushroom Man, Alan Muskat (a fun guy with fungi ;-)) and Alan’s friend, Greer, to learn more about mushrooms. Alan is a local mushroom expert in the Western North Carolina mountains and hosts many classes and foraging trips to teach his students about mushrooms and other edible plants. With Chanterelle season in full swing, we joined William, Greer, and Alan in the forest to meet their friends in low places.
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The South has been drenched with daily rains this summer, often heavy, that have taken a toll on many crops. However, to the mushroom, it has been a Chamber of Commerce summer. This spring was spectacular for morels in North Georgia while summer brings Chanterelles to the South and fall is prime mushroom season with the greatest variety of edible treasures.
During our mushroom expedition, Chef William Dissen provided an education on mushroom basics while Alan Muskat provided colorful commentary and expert knowledge.
While on our hunt, we found many different types of mushrooms; most edible and the majority forgettable in that they may not make you sick, but they just didn’t taste good. We discovered mushrooms that looked like opaque jelly, others that were a beautiful blue, some that lactated when cut, and others that turned blue when bruised. Some were spongy and others firm. It was like observing fish on a coral reef; each with colors and properties unique to themselves. Some were beautiful, some colorful, some tasty, and others unpleasant. And, like a coral reef, we were cautious of the potential dangers.
We worked our way through the forest floor until we struck the mother load of Chanterelles on a runoff slope in Pisgah National Forest. Chanterelles are prized for their almond-like aroma and meaty texture. They cost upwards of $30.00 per pound (if they are even available) at the market. Most are orange in color and a conical flower in shape, with no gills. Those that have gills are called faux Chanterelles and are best left alone. Some are red in color and are prized for their flavor and texture.
As we began to harvest the mushrooms, Alan told us how each mushroom is a blossom of the fungus that extends under the soil. That fungus can stretch great distances (in Oregon, a fungus three miles wide has been found) through the Mycelium. These tiny fibers, 1/7th the size of a hair, can wrap and extend for miles and provide information to all living plant life in the forest.
A morning of mushroom foraging yielded a few pounds of Chanterelles and a ton of mushroom knowledge. If you are interested in learning more about mushrooms, be sure to refer to Alan Muskat’s website and if you’re in Asheville, take part in one of his mushroom classes or foraging adventures. If you’re interested in eating mushrooms, then take a trip to Asheville and join Chef Dissen at his restaurant, The Market Place.
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