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Mushroom Hunting in the Hudson Valley: Why Mushroom Hunting is the Next Big Thing

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There’s something fulfilling about getting in touch with your inner hunter-gatherer. Whether its catching fish for a family dinner or making a quick salad with greens from the garden, this primitive instinct continues to lead modern-day wild-game hunters and edible-plant foragers to the bountiful Hudson Valley. But one food, above all others, sends foodies and foragers alike deep into the forest: wild mushrooms.

“Now with the Internet, people are learning about foraging and are growing interested in trying it themselves,” says “Wildman” Steve Brill, a naturalist who’s been leading foraging expeditions around the New York area since 1982. “There’s just more access to information and to networking; many Meetup groups talk online and egg each other on to try new activities. It attracts a lot of different people.”

Fun fact: Most wild mushrooms are a good source of vitamin D; some species contain B vitamins, and a few have been found to provide vitamin C

I recently attended one of Brill’s plant and wild herb forays through Central Park with a group of nearly 50 people. We found a number of edible species, such as yellow wood sorrel, a clover look-alike with a zesty lemon flavor; the body-detoxifying burdock root, tasty when sliced thin and boiled; and the analgesic black birch tree, whose twigs taste like spearmint when chewed. It was a sight that drew many curious eyes: a large group of men, women, and children gnawing on twigs in the middle of Manhattan. Most surprisingly of all, Brill located a good-sized patch of chamomile, saying it was “the first time ever, in decades of hosting these walks” that he’s found chamomile growing wild in Central Park. Unfortunately, since we’d just gone through a week of hot, sunny weather, there were no ’shrooms to be found. 

Generally, it is not recommended that beginners head out on their own to start plucking wild mushrooms without some knowledge of what to look for — and what to look out for. Even if you’re armed with a field guide, many tasty species look quite similar to mushrooms that can be fatally poisonous. There are, however, several local groups that lead guided walks with experts in mycology (the study of fungi). During these tours, one can safely learn how to identify, store, cook, and serve the wild mushrooms found along the way. “We see all kinds of people on tours,” Brill says, “from families with kids, to scientists or science buffs; vegans, freegans, and people who heard about foraging on the Food Network.” (For those wondering, freeganism refers to people who choose to live alternative lifestyles that revolve around minimalist consumption, i.e., dumpster diving for food and goods.)

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Related stories:
» Edible vs. poisonous mushrooms: What to look for (photo gallery)
» Mushroom recipe: Cooking with chanterelle mushrooms
» Foraging essentials: What you need before you go mushroom hunting
» Meet Wildman Steve Brill and the mushroom people (mycologists)
» Return to main story: Hunting for Mushrooms

 

giant puffball mushroomGiant Puffball mushroom (Calvatia gigantea)

Prime mushroom hunting season usually lasts from August to October, depending on rainfall. During this time, one can find a variety of the edible species that seem to be popping up on menus all over, including black trumpets, which have a savory flavor (great with pasta dishes); the highly sought-after golden chanterelle, whose buttery textures are attracting scores of chefs; and giant puffballs — those round, white ones you probably kicked for fun as a kid. These are edible when picked at the right age, and have an earthy, nutty flavor. “This summer was bad; we barely had any rain through July and didn’t see many pop up. They thrive after there’s been rain,” Brill says. “If the weather’s good, this season we can also expect to find hen of the woods, chicken mushrooms, black-staining polypores, and shaggy manes.”

Fun fact: Mushrooms have been successfully used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a variety of ailments

chicken of the woods mushroomChicken of the Woods (Laetiporus sulphureus)

While it’s becoming almost trendy for the average food enthusiast to hunt mushrooms these days, naturalists believe that gatherers should respect the land by not taking more mushrooms than they can use. Others, however, will hunt for bulk quantities to sell at farm markets or to local restaurants. Woodstock’s Oriole 9 is committed to using local products, which includes a variety of mushrooms they purchased from foragers, such as trumpets, hen of the woods, morels, chicken of the woods, and chanterelles. “The people that forage for us are specialists,” says owner Luc Moeys. “We do not just accept any mushrooms.” Though he won’t say where in the Valley the mushrooms come from  (“the secrets lie with the foragers”), they can be found on the restaurant’s menu, in dishes such as hen of the woods omelets; trivoli pasta with sautéed trumpets, white wine, garlic cream, and parsley; and mushroom pâté with house-made pickles and orange mustard. A Tavola Trattoria, a new restaurant in New Paltz, was recently touting an upcoming special on their Facebook page: goat cheese tortelli with locally foraged chanterelles.

Fun fact: A single mature mushroom can drop as many as 16 billion spores (mushrooms grow from spores, not seeds)

Some environmentalists have voiced concern about damage from foragers, suggesting that excessive foraging is ruining the landscape. “I’ve been doing this for a long time and haven’t seen much damage. Things like extreme heat, flooding, or pollution affect mushrooms more than foragers,” Brill explains. “A mushroom is really the fruit of the fungus. Even if you pick a mushroom, the fungus is still in the ground. It’s like pulling an apple off a tree. The tree’s still there when the fruit has been removed; it’s not hurting the environment.” And eventually it will grow back, continuing its cycle, perhaps to be foraged again.

Related stories:
» Edible vs. poisonous mushrooms: What to look for (photo gallery)
» Mushroom recipe: Cooking with chanterelle mushrooms
» Foraging essentials: What you need before you go mushroom hunting
» Meet Wildman Steve Brill and the mushroom people (mycologists)
» Return to main story: Hunting for Mushrooms

 

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