2017-11-22 / Nature

Mushroom Hunting Brings Gourmet Finds

By Charles Avenengo

Yellow- orange fly agaric mushrooms. 
(Photos by Carmen Rugel) Yellow- orange fly agaric mushrooms. (Photos by Carmen Rugel) Last Saturday’s mushroom hunting walk at Ballard Park was certainly well attended. “This is our third mushroom walk. They are popular. Last spring, we had 55 participants on a walk,” Ballard Park Executive Director Colleen McGrath said.

As I looked around the crowd, attempting to find the common denominator of the 30 participants, I thought they were classic outdoor enthusiasts, all curious to learn something new. But they soon proved to be much more.

To call them “foodies” would be an understatement. These were the gourmets at the highest level of epicureans who express themselves by perfecting meals, and are always searching for a new angle and freshness. These maestros were seeking answers to their cuisine from the mysterious world of fungi, the “Fifth Kingdom.”

The Fifth Kingdom refers to the zoological taxonomy of the five highest orders of life. Plants and animals are two kingdoms, followed by two kingdoms at the cellular level, and then the fifth kingdom of fungi, which includes mushrooms, yeasts, rusts, smuts, puffballs, truffles, morels and molds. Globally, there are 70,000 named fungi. Unlike plants, fungi cannot produce their own food. Instead, they must live off of other organisms, like logs and dead trees.

A sample of wild mushrooms observed during last Saturday’s Mushroom Walk at Ballard Park. (Photo by Charles Avenengo) A sample of wild mushrooms observed during last Saturday’s Mushroom Walk at Ballard Park. (Photo by Charles Avenengo) Fungi are popular in kitchens around the world, hence the sizable audience assembled to learn from a pair of mycologists, Ryan Bouchard and Emily Schmidt, currently Rhode Island’s leading advocates for mushroom hunting. The couple are founders of the nonprofit Mushroom Hunting Foundation, and Bouchard has written a book, “Gourmet Mushrooms of Rhode Island.” The duo said they have tried more than 200 species of mushrooms in their careers.

However, cooking and consuming mushrooms involves some derring do. In her opening, Schmidt zinged the crowd with a pair of caveats. “When in doubt, throw it out,” and, “They say you can have old mushroom hunters, and you can have bold mushroom hunters, but you can’t have old, bold mushroom hunters,” she said.

For emphasis, Bouchard displayed some mushrooms with the villainous oxymoronic name “Destroying Angel.” He said that while safe to handle, these mushrooms of the Amanita genus are deadly poisonous. And for emphasis, he explained that he recently found the innocent-looking white mushrooms, which look like the standard mushrooms sold in market produce, in downtown Newport.

Last summer in Oregon, 14 people fell sick after ingesting an Amanita cousin, the “Death Cap.” Three of the victims needed liver transplants. But there appear to be no restrictions concerning the gathering of mushrooms in the DEM regulations. Given the deadly ramifications, mushroom hunters are a community that polices itself.

Thoroughly sobered by these cautionary tales, we began the hike. With their woven straw mushroom collecting basket, I imagined Bouchard in Merlin’s blue-pointed wizard cap and Schmidt in a red cape-and-hood, and that I was plunging into the woods with the wizards of the Fifth Kingdom and a cadre of their fellow epicurean connoisseurs.

I have been in these woods hundreds of times. On this walk, however, I was introduced to this new kingdom by the guides. As a result, I will never look at the woods in the same way again. Before, I rarely observed fungi, but now I realize that virtually every dead and dying tree, log, stump and branch has some form of fungus growing on it.

Every few meters, the wizards stopped to describe more than 20 types of fungi, complete with running commentary on which were edible, poisonous or good for broths.

At one site, Schmidt pointed

out a gelatinous fungus called “Black Jelly Fungus.” She said that while relatively unknown in North America, jelly fungi are a staple for soups in Asia.

A fungus appropriately

named “Walled Maze Polypore” revealed a maze of gills with hundreds of intricate twists and turns.

For a final act, like a stage

magician yanking a rabbit out of a hat, Bouchard reached into a large hollow log at the Quarry Pond and produced a massive white mushroom. It was twice the size of his hand. He wasn’t sure what kind it was, so he simply concluded with a smile and said, “That is one giant mushroom.”

Compared to Europe and Asia, mushroom hunting isn’t that popular in North America, except in the Pacific Northwest. Given the popularity of their program at Ballard and at other similar educational engagements statewide, Bouchard and Schmidt are out to change that in the Ocean State.

For further information about mushrooms, contact Bouchard and Schmidt at info@mushroomhunting.org or phone 401-595-6143.

Happy Thanksgiving, from Mother Nature.

Mushroom Recipes

Attending the mushroom walk at Ballard Park was Newport restaurant luminary Tom Callahan of CafĂ© Zelda’s fame, who later admitted, “All I could think of on that walk was food!” The restaurateur offered a mushroom recipe and advice from his vault.

Pasta and Mushrooms

In a large skillet, add two tablespoons of butter, chop one clove of garlic and slice thin one small container of crimini mushrooms. Add to skillet. You want the mushrooms to brown, not steam. Use one bag of fresh tagliatelle. Add a pinch of salt in the water, boil and drain. Place in a large bowl everything from the skillet, including any juices. Add olive oil to taste and turn the pasta and mushrooms. Top with a sprinkle of grated parmesan and a wave of fresh parsley. Enjoy with any wine!

Naturalist Charles Avenengo has been chasing Aquidneck Island wildlife for more than 40 years.

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