Confession: I spend a lot of time reading and drooling over food and travel blogs while preparing our menu for the week. Sometimes, doing so makes me a bit nostalgic for the comfy life we led in the States with a house and possessions and an oven. This feeling is strongest in the fall and winter, the nesting months, when people are spray-painting pumpkins, decorating their mantels, and baking apple pies so delicious looking I can smell them if only I close my eyes. Our transitory, minimalistic lives are wonderful in so very many ways, but sometimes I stand in line in a store and smell baking-themed candles with names like “Cinnamon Cider” and “Warm Apple Pie” and have to fight to turn my nose away lest they go into my shopping cart.
Many of my weekly reads are written by beautiful women with adorable little children, a cute puppy or two, a grand house somewhere in the countryside of France or, perhaps, the United Kingdom, and jobs that I have yet to discern. For the most part, they do the same things that I do, such as go to their local farmers’ markets and make a lot of soup, but, as of late, now that Europe’s grey, rainy season of fall through spring has begun, they have all seemingly taken to the forests for an activity that is foreign to me: hunting wild mushrooms.
The fact that mushroom hunting is not something that I am accustomed to is actually quite bizarre if I think about it for more than a minute as my family greatly enjoys its home-grown foods: my family’s backyard has featured everything from berry brambles to herb gardens to vegetable plots. Also, my home is situated in woods where mushrooms are sure to be a plenty (though potentially tainted by farmland fertilizer runoff.) In fact, if I think back now, I cannot recall seeing mushrooms frequently on the dinner table, so, perhaps, one of my parents does not enjoy them. Going further, I would not be surprised if we had not tried mushroom hunting when I was younger only to have me throw a fit about potential spore poisoning, ending the adventure early. I was always quite an anxious child like that. In the end, though I had heard many stories of my classmates spending the weekend morel-hunting, I never participated, and the activity remains foreign to me.
Lately, though, I have been absolutely fascinated by the stories of mushroom hunting across Europe from these women who wrap their children in tartan and spend the afternoon skipping around a forest with a wooden basket like little elves. At home, they artfully create meals from their days’ finds, crafting pastas and soups and side-dishes worthy of cookbooks. (Particularly beautiful are the stories by Mimi Thorisson of Manger, which you can read here and here and here.) While in Ledeboerpark Friday afternoon and with these stories of wild mushroom hunting running through my head, I noticed a large clump of mold-covered mushrooms, whose caps measured nearly a foot across, located under a pine tree. Taking this as a sign, after my picnic I proceeded to fill my brown paper lunch bag with as many mushroom types as I could find.
In total, I collected approximately eighteen different types of mushrooms from Ledboerpark, and, while mushroom-picking in public parks may have questionable legal status, given the number of elderly folk in the park filling their bike bags with chestnuts I think the hunt was perfectly acceptable. Never surprised by my projects, the Frenchman helped me assemble a well-ventilated mushroom laboratory on our coffee table and wrap a spore-blocking bandana around my nose and mouth. He then watched with amusement as I sorted through my finds, carefully inspected each part of the mushrooms from cap to gills to stem, and dissected those with closed caps or those which warranted further examination. Still quite anxious about such things, I was adamant that I not going to be frolicking through the woods dressed like Red Riding Hood any time soon until I was certain that my finds were edible. Turns out, most of them were not.
One thing I learned is that mushrooms are incredibly difficult to identify, which is why many mushroom hunters stick to the unique-looking morel. Even chanterelles, a popular mushroom available at our local market, has a “false chantrelle” cousin. Of the mushrooms I was able to identify (some with the help of the kind people at wildmushroomhunting.org) only the Common Parasols were in an edible state. Some of the other edibles, such as the Shaggy Manes and Puffballs, were too far along in the decay process for consumption. I also learned that one of the most important criteria for determining mushroom type is to take a spore print by placing the mushroom on half white/half black paper and covering it with a glass. Considering that Christmas-scented candles are on the unnecessary purchases list, we most certainly did not have construction paper lying around for prints. If we had, perhaps the mushrooms could have been more fully identified.
The most fascinating part about the mushrooms was what was inside: Some of the mushrooms secreted latex while others were full of maggots and worms once the gills were pulled back. Others still puffed out little wisps of black spores if squeezed or were full of brown, oozing liquid. It was all quite enough to put us off of mushrooms, even the store-bought white buttons, for a while.
In the end, we did not eat any of the mushrooms and likely will not be doing so until at least a few more foraging expeditions have been completed as the risk seems simply too high. The adventure of finding the mushrooms, ducking under trees branches to recover them, and analyzing them was quite enough to satisfy my wild mushroom-hunting dreams. While we may stick to the wild foraging of chestnuts for a while, I shall continue to live vicariously through my weekly reads and make their delicious creations with market purchases.