Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Hunt, Part 3

Although I like to eat—and cook—my foraging hobby owes more to a life-long interest in the natural world than to any sort of gastronomic ambition. This frequently puts me in odd company. Nature buffs, I'll readily admit, can be socially awkward. Many of them give the impression of relating better to plants and animals than to other people. Maybe this partially explains the trouble environmentalists have in communicating to the general public the need to protect our natural heritage. I used to lead bird watching trips for the local Audubon with my wife, trips that attracted a parade of strange characters. More recently we've become members of a mycological society. I can say without hesitation that mushroom people out-eccentric the birders in every way.

Yesterday I met three such mushroom people at a nearby state park to look for truffles. Two of them were accomplished mycologists; none had ever been truffling before. They pointed out beautiful specimens of the Mycena genus; we saw the deliquescing remains of Earthstars; the day-glo yellow swirls of Witch's Butter caught our attention. I even had my first bite of a Turkey Tail (see above: eaten raw, it's chewy like beef jerky, and as D. pointed out, the taste is, not surprisingly, "fungal"). The truffles eluded us, however. In a few spots the second-growth Douglas fir had the right ground structure and duff composition, but aside from a scattering of pine cone middens here and there it was clear that squirrels and other potential spore-spreading mammals were not very active in the area and were certainly not feasting on truffles. We scratched around in a couple places without finding much more than dozing millipedes (D. said the bugs smelled like almonds and I thought he might pop one in his mouth).

Just the same, it was a delightful and well spent afternoon with good people in the outdoors, and I learned quite a lot. I learned, for instance, that wild edible mushrooms are still tested all over Europe before going to market in the aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear meltdown (this is because mushrooms have the unfortunate tendency to concentrate heavy metals and other forms of environmental contamination). I learned that slug excrement can be a powerful stimulant—especially if the slug has been working a marijuana plantation. And I learned that a hardcore mycophagist will even eat old, soggy coral mushrooms if presented the opportunity. I passed on this apparent delicacy, making me realize I still had a ways to go before I joined the ranks of the truly hardcore.

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