I love to hunt mushrooms. I have my secret spots, just as every mushroom forager has theirs. Mine are on our property which makes for a quick trip to see what’s growing.
If you are native to Michigan, you know about morels. They are, and will always be, my favorite. I was unfamiliar with the other edible wild mushrooms growing in Northern Michigan throughout the summer and fall months until I was given a beautifully illustrated book by Antonio Carluccio, The Complete Mushroom: The Quiet Hunt. At the time I was struggling with a debilitating back condition. The book was a godsend—it sparked interest in a new pursuit, and gave me a focus that buoyed my recovery.
There’s a learning curve to all things and that applies especially to wild mushroom hunting. A beginner’s mistake could be fatal. My training as a nurse has taught me to be analytical and methodical which proved invaluable to mushroom identification. Still, there’s only one way to learn about what grows beneath trees—go to the woods. So, armed with field guides and determination, I set forth.
In due course, I learned the basics of identification such as how the gills attach to the stem and that boletes and chanterelles lack gills. I learned that certain species of mushroom are associated with certain trees, and appear only during specific seasons and conditions. I gathered specimens, made field note and spore prints, smelled, tested and once absolutely certain of identity, tasted. Absolutely certain bears repeating.
I’ll never forget the first time I found a porcini (boletus edulis). I’d been looking for them to no avail until one day I spied a large mushroom growing at the edge of a stand of spruce. I knew instantly I’d hit the jackpot. I obtained the landowner’s permission to enter the stand and gleefully set forth. Unfortunately, the mushrooms were old and bug-infested. What a pain to have to toss a mushroom measuring eleven inches across the cap! The last time I was at that same stand of spruce, I hit it in perfect timing. The porcini had recently fruited, many still in or near the button stage, perfect. Score one for me, zero for the bugs!
Last fall I was hiking up the wooded hill where I’ve found several species of delicious edible mushrooms. I hoped we’d had enough rain to bring up the fall chanterelles. They had been scarce all summer, given the drought condition, and again, were nowhere to be found. As I stood amidst the graceful beech, I reflected on how far I’d come since I began hunting in earnest. The back condition had tempered to the point where I could now enjoy a hike without excruciating pain. I’d become familiar with at least a hundred species of edible, medicinal and poisonous fungi. I’d passed a test to become a designated Mushroom Expert. Most rewarding of all, I’d regained confidence lost with the back injury that had laid me low for several years.
We ate wild mushroom risotto that night along with crab stuffed snapper, eating like kings on the wealth of earth and sea. It’s not just the rich nutty flavor of a fresh porcini that keeps me searching, it’s the love of adventure, the excitement of the hunt, the reward of discovery and the peace of losing myself in the quiet woods.