Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Bear's Head

Check out this crazy looking fungus. From a distance it looks like a frozen waterfall. Close up you can see that all those little icicle-like projections are attached to arms, like the tentacles of an undersea creature. This is Hericium abietis, better known as the bear's head mushroom. Other mushrooms in the Hericium genus include the lion's mane (Hericium erinaceus) and the bear's head tooth fungus (Hericium americanum). I usually find the bear's head in old-growth forests, where it colonizes conifer stumps and logs and can be found fruiting in the same spot for several years. To harvest it, you slice off the appendages with a knife, careful to leave the attached stalk so it will fruit again.

I found this one while hiking in an ancient, moss-draped forest near Mt. Rainier with my friend Cora. On a day filled with edible mushrooms of various species, this one was the most spectacular. To give some perspective, the fungus in the photo above is about 18" X 18". Amazingly, we found it right in the middle of a trail where an old log had been cut to open a passage. How many hundreds of hikers and bikers had already brushed past this incredible mushroom without knowing they were rubbing elbows with a true delicacy of the forest? How many didn't even stop to admire its ornate, even outlandish form? We left some for those who do notice such things.

The bear's head is best simply sauteed in butter. Cook it longer and more gently (i.e. lower heat) than other mushrooms or it will be chewy. The taste is nutty and complex. Cora sauteed this one with both shallots and garlic and served it with a grilled halibut fillet topped with cherry tomato salsa.


Anonymous said...

Hiking in Canadian Rockies recently we saw zillions of mushrooms of different varieties. Took many photos, dazed by their beauty and the still life, literally, surrounding each one. Didn't pick a thing. Can you recommend a guided walk in these parts, any organized group that introduces the basics about finding edible mushrooms? May not be able to manage it this fall, but it's on my list of things that I want to do.
I look forward to reading your article in Seattle Magazine.

Langdon Cook said...

Sally, check out Puget Sound Mycological Society. They offer a monthly meeting, beginner classes, and free weekend forays with experts. The PSMS annual show is coming up next weekend (usually it's at the UW Horticultural Center; not sure where it is this year) and I can't recommend it more: real specimens on display with common/Latin names, cooking demonstrations, ID experts on hand to identify whatever you bring in. Totally cool.

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook said...

Never seen that one before! You are definitely blessed in the mushroom department!

mdmnm said...

What a beauty!

Does it dry well, or is it best as a fresh mushroom?

Darkheart said...

I looove the bear's head fungus. It's so pretty, and I like the texture. I find it often in my area, and it's a custom to go a little out of my way to look for it when I'm out doing things like squirrel hunting in the fall.

Plus it's fun to describe it to friends as a 'white porcupine looking growth thing'.

Langdon Cook said...

Mdmnm - I'm told it does dry well but I haven't experimented yet...usually I polish it off fresh as soon as I get it home.

Darkheart - I'm guessing you have some older forest in your area.

One thing I neglected to mention about the texture: when cooked down it's an excellent substitute for crab meat.