Thursday, November 20, 2008

Amanita Eater

FOTL wants to be a responsible blog. Really. We almost killed this post. But knowledge wins over fear and ignorance. So here's the caveat emptor right up front: DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME. Misidentifying this mushroom could KILL YOU DEAD.

These are Amanita mushrooms. Edible ones, but that's beside the point. The genus Amanita kills more people than any other genus of fungi. The similar looking Death Cap (Amanita phalloides) victimizes more hapless foragers than any other mushroom period, with the Destroying Angel (Amanita ocreata et al) close on its heels. This is not the darn-this-gastric-distress sort of discomfort; this is the sign-me-up-for-a-new-liver deal. Amatoxins cannot be cooked out, dried out, or diluted. There is no antidote. Take a few bites of the Death Cap and you better hope there's a liver with your name on it. Click here for a survivor's tale.

That said, there are a number of edible and choice Amanitas. Italians in particular are fond of them. They call this particular species Corccora or Coccoli (the latter translates as "pampered baby"), which will have to do for us too since our variety on the West Coast doesn't have a widely used common name and the Latin is under dispute. You'll see it referred to scientifically as Amanita calyptrata, A. calyptroderma, and A. lanei. David Arora refers to it as A. calyptrata in Mushrooms Demystified, but don't be surprised if the next edition calls it A. lanei. In any event, all three names refer to the same mushroom.

Amanita mushrooms share some common traits. They fruit out of a cottony membrane known as
a universal veil or volva that encloses the entire body, commonly referred to as an egg. As the mushroom grows, the veil parts and begins to deteriorate, marking some species such as Amanita muscaria and Amanita pantherina with the warts that are so characteristic of the genus. The Corccora, on the other hand, is usually left with a distinctive white skullcap rather than warts.

Corccora generally exhibit striations at the cap margin (see those fine lines along the edge of the cap at top) and hollow stems (see sliced stem at right). Unlike most Amanitas, the gills and stem are creamy colored or light yellow rather than white. Older specimens have a fishy odor.

Now I've given you enough information to go out and get yourself killed—but it's the same info you'll find in the field guides. If you really want to try this mushroom, go hunting with someone who has local on-the-ground knowledge of the species and has been eating it for a long time. Corccora are mycorrhizal with Pacific madrone, so your best bet for habitat is the coastal mountain chain between Point Reyes, California, and Roseburg, Oregon. Isolated areas with good stands of madrone in Washington and B.C. also have Corccora. Here's a video I shot a few days ago in the Rogue River Canyon of southwest Oregon that shows the unique egg-like fruiting and habitat:

The handsome specimens above got sauteed in butter and added to scrambled eggs. The hint of seafood and firm texture make them far superior to a standard supermarket button.

Other than that, the Rogue River mushroom harvest was pretty much a bust. We managed a pound or so of chanterelles from a never-miss spot and that was that. This time last year was perhaps the greatest fruiting of Boletus edulis I had ever seen, with more than we could reasonably eat and dry over the course of one long weekend, and Leccinums to boot, not to mention generous fruitings of white chanterelles and black trumpets as well. That's the way it goes. Mushrooms can't be entirely demystified.


mdmnm said...

My tentative forays into mushrooming don't even start to contemplate eating an amanita. I'll stick much closer to the "fool-proof four". Nice photos, as always, and an interesting post!

Anonymous said...

my nefew died because he ate an Amanita Phaloides and the liver transplant didn't work...Since then I can not try wild mushrooms, because I'm scare to pick "the wrong one!"... And I love mushrooms! the smell when they are releasing the juices on the hot skillet... mmmmmmmmm

Amanita Eater, what a sad tittle for me... (And don't worry, it is not your fault)

Thanks for all the information! nice blog!

Langdon Cook said...

Dolores, that's terrible. I'm sorry for your loss. It's a reminder to anyone who picks wild mushrooms that the consequences of misidentification can be dire. As Mdmnm says, sticking to the "fool-proof four" (which ones are those anyway?) or a similarly narrow group of easily ID'd mushrooms is probably the best route for most folks, but if you really want to branch out, make sure you do so under the tutelage of a seasoned veteran who knows your local conditions.

kilgorestudge said...


First of all, thanks for coming to my rescue on the group regarding mushrooms.

Amanitas are for advanced mushroom collectors. I don't recommend eating them in my upcoming book since it is aimed at beginning and novice collectors. Beginners should aim at recognizing them by genus (as a group)so they can avoid them completely. Leave them be.

That said, some can be eaten and I eat Amanita jacksonii, the American Caesar. It was a great year for them in Maine. They are actually quite easy to identify. They are very tasty too. There are others too but I am not going to experiment with new species. It's just not worth it to push the envelope in that arena.

Amanita phalloides is responsible for most poisoning deaths. Sorry for your loss.

Sticking with the easy, safe species is the way to go. There are more than four but if you learn just a couple of species a year, consider it good progress.

When in doubt, throw it out.

David Spahr

drfugawe said...

A few years ago, I came on some beautiful 'shrooms which I thought might be matsutakes (I had at that time never been in the company of a matsutake). They were everywhere - so I picked a bucketful and took them home - they keyed out as Amanita smithiana, and I pitched them. I later learned that except for the smell, they are easy to mistake for matsi, so I didn't feel so bad. I'm still at the stage where I'm not ready to eat an Amanita, but then I've never found a batch of A. calyptrata either!

Here's my "cautious" advice re picking safely in the PNW:

mdmnm said...

Here are the foolproof four

debbie viess said...

I agree about the importance of caution in eating amanitas. None the less, here in California we have a number of very delicious species that are worth learning how to identify. As to the common misconception that smithiana smells nothing like a matsie ... turns out that is not always true. Some smithiana do have a spicy order that is similar to a matsie, especially to someone who is inexperienced, so be sure and use all of your characteristics to make your IDs for the table, and never rely on just one!

Time and taxonomy marches on. Our local Coccora has not been called lanei for a long time. That name was rejected by the majority of Amanita folks after just a few years. Amanita calyptroderma is now the officially recognized name for our Fall Coccora. And now we even have a name for the Spring Coccora, which is almost identical to the fall version except in color (and as it turns out, DNA). That one is now called Amanita vernicoccora, basic latin for Spring coccora. See how easy this is?

Arora did a magnificent job on his books, but they are now over twenty years out of date. You will need to look elsewhere for more up to date information. Still, the names change but the mushrooms remain the same.

Lots of deep amanita details on my website:

Have fun out there, but be careful, too.