Wednesday, August 24, 2011


The moral (or morel) of today's column is that mushroom hunting can be risky business, from what I heard while attending “Gathering Wild Mushrooms,” a University of Utah Lifelong Learning class. 
First of all, you could wander off and get lost in the woods, as did a student from last year’s class outing in the Uinta Mountains.  Instructor Tatyana Golub said that although the student was found unharmed, it underscores the point that you shouldn’t go  foraging for mushrooms alone, and you should take a whistle, compass and plenty of water with you. 
Secondly, you’re poking around in leaves and under trees, etc. where snakes tend to roam. “Oh, yes, there are snakes everywhere up there,” she said when I asked about that. 
And then, there’s the chance that what you think are chanterelles or porcinis are actually one of the poisonous varieties. The white "Destroying Angel" might be mistaken for a white puffball, for instance. 
But if you’re adventurous and learn how to identify the safe from the scary ones, the flavorful payoff is pretty great.  Golub pointed out that   in California farmers markets, wild mushrooms are selling for $18-$24 per pound.  These flavorful fungus add an earthy taste and meaty texture to soups, sauces, and are wonderful eaten on their own, either marinated or sauteed. 
There seem to be plenty of people intrigued with the idea, as the class was completely filled, with a waiting list. 
Mushrooms are the fleshy, spore-bearing fruiting body of a fungus, typically produced above ground on soil or on its food source. The main body of the fungus lives under the ground, said Golub.
Like all fungi, mushrooms are not plants and do not undergo photosynthesis. Most mushrooms that are sold in grocery stores, such as white button mushrooms, crimini, portobello, shiitake and oyster have been commercially grown on mushroom farms in controlled, sterilized environments.   
Golub who grew up in Russia, has been picking wild mushrooms for as long as she can remember, “Because in Russia this is what people do for fun and to get food supplies. Mushroom hunting is like a treasure hunt for the whole family. By every bus stop in Russia, you will see grandmothers selling mushrooms by the roadside.”
Her know-how was passed down from her grandparents, and she in turn has passed it on to her son, who helped teach the class last year.  
It’s true, though, that one wrong mushroom can be deadly. “I have lived so far, so I guess I’m making the right choices,” she said. 
Every year, Golub's does a classroom presentation about mushrooms, what to look for and what to avoid, and where and when to find them.  The second part of the class is a field trip to the Uintas, where the group forages for mushrooms together.  
Since mushrooms like heat and moisture, with this combination there’s not a long season in the Utah mountains. Golub advised that if it rains, wait a couple of days and then hunt for mushrooms.
She advised novices to start out looking for oyster mushrooms, because they don’t have any poisonous look-alikes in the U.S. They grow on dead wood, and are shaped like an oyster.  Porcini mushrooms are also fairly safe, because the poisonous look-alike, called “devil’s boletus,” is easy to identify because of its red stem and red pores.  
Other mushrooms that she has found in Utah include the spongy honeycomb-shaped morels, puffballs, wood ear, meadow mushrooms, porcini, and chanterelles. Chanterelles may be confused for the poisonous the jack o’lantern variety, which glows in the dark. 
She has found many puffballs in the Uintas, but they can be mistaken for the pigskin puffball, which is tough and ridged like a football, and purple instead of white inside. It’s not deadly, but causes nasty gastrointestinal symptoms.  They can also be mistaken for the “Destroying Angel,” another white, puffy look-alike. 
Golub said that once she cut into a “Destroying Angel,” and didn’t notice she had a small cut on her finger.  “My finger swelled up the size of a hot dog for several hours,” she said.
This is why it’s important to invest in a good guidebook, or go with an expert, she said.
“Don’t get lost, and don’t eat what you don’t know.” 

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