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Gone ’shrooming Foraging for wild edibles in North Carolina By pau l i n s e r r a


he spring sun fought its way through the dense canopy of trees and touched the forest floor. It had just rained and the smell of earth rose all around us. Mushrooms often appear after a downpour, so it was prime foraging time. Robert Sprenger, a local mushroom expert, and I were hunting for oyster mushrooms, a mild but delicious common edible. They are known to form primordial bodies overnight. They can heal or be fatal. Some conjure dark magic. Some just taste delicious. Mushrooms: One of the culinary world’s most intriguing foodstuffs, they have gained an entourage of geeky followers and foragers who are bringing their wild edible fungi to North Carolina dinner tables. In North Carolina more than 3,000 different varieties of mushroom have been identified, and of those, about 200 are common edibles, like hen of the woods or oyster mushrooms. A major concentration of edible mushrooms grows in the Asheville/ Blue Ridge mountain area. So how do you know if a mushroom is edible or not? Charlotte Caplan, an experienced myco-hunter from the Asheville Mushroom Club, answers jokingly, “There is only one way to know if its edible or not and that is to eat it.” A simple pass/ fail life-or-death ultimatum. She was joking, of course. She relies heavily on experience, fellow mycologists and her field guides. “I always carry two or three field guides on me at a time when I am hunting,” says Caplan, who has published a cookbook, Cooking with the Asheville Mushroom Club, focusing on the fruits of the forest. Caplan uses a rigorous identification process that she developed over time; smell is one of her key processes. Many mushrooms have a signature fragrance. Young maitake’s smell sweet in their youth; as they mature the scent changes to fishy. Many edible mushrooms pick up the terroir of the forest and smell like wet dirt or rain. All mushrooms taste mushroomy, but each edible species has unique nuances. The texture and taste of lobster mushrooms are similar to lobster meat. Oyster mushrooms do not taste like oysters, but rather are mild and crunchy. Morels have a spongy texture but have a distinct taste and smell similar to truffles. Asheville myco-enthusiast Alan Muskat harvests more than 400 pounds of mushrooms each year. He hosts a Wild Dinner series in which he collaborates with local chefs to cook his foraged mushrooms. The dinners include a foraging expedition in the mountains, locally crafted wine and mead, music and several


the triangle’s weekly

courses with the wild edibles playing center stage. “The aim of the series is to create an intimacy with the food you eat. A symbiotic relationship, like certain mushrooms with trees,” Muskat said. There are also eccentric items like lobster mushroom bisque and shaggy mane mushroom pasta. The shaggy mane melts into a black, inky, delicious mess; the ink is then used in the pasta dough. There is a historic precedent for all the hype around these fungi. Ancient Egyptians believed they aided in immortality and decreed them the food of royalty. No commoner was allowed to eat them. It was similar with the Chinese and Japanese; mushrooms were exclusive to the wealthy and served as medicines, health tonics and as rare culinary pleasures. Mushrooms are one of Mother Nature’s nutrient powerhouses. Aside from legumes, mushrooms are one of the best sources of vegetable protein, which is why many are often described as tasting “meaty” and “smoky.” They are packed with B vitamins and are often deemed “brain food.” Scientists are also studying mushrooms for cancer and HIV/AIDS treatments, forest conservation, soil nourishment, restoration of natural habitats and as organic pesticides. Mycopesticides have been used to eliminate carpenter ants in homes. There is a particular fungus, Cordyceps lloydi, that when ingested by an insect, takes over the nervous system. The insect has the sudden impulse to climb to the highest point and anchor itself with its pincers. Then it dies. The mycelium then takes over by mummifying the ant carcass in white spores. A mushroom will then fruit from the carcass, releasing its spores and allowing the wind to spread its seed. Many premium wild edible mushrooms grow around the Triangle: maitake or hen of the woods are all around Cary; oysters thrive in Pittsboro, where local expert Robert Sprenger organizes the Chatham Mushroom Club. He hosts family-friendly foraging expeditions and moderates the online group “ChatMush,” from which users send mushroom alerts: If you have discovered a location where Oyster mushrooms grow regularly, but cannot go out to check, alerts

are sent to the board notifying members to check their locations for fruiting mushrooms. “Everyone in this area is working very hard to improve the community, and this is one way I can use my knowledge to help out,” Sprenger says. Sprenger is also developing low-energy, offthe-grid growing techniques for local farmers. He inoculates logs with mycelium, which is the fungal network that produces the actual mushroom. Since, as Sprenger stated, “rain equals mushrooms, I use gravity-fed sprinklers which are fed by rains” and by himself when there are droughts. Sprenger is also quick to dispel myths about identifying mushrooms.

shiitake mushrooms (above and next page), grown on kellam-wyatt farm near raleigh phoToS by d.l. aNdeRSoN

“There are some quirky and false methods for identifying poisonous mushrooms, like the ‘Silver Spoon’ method, where a possibly toxic mushroom will turn a silver spoon black or tarnish it. Its simply not true.” Sprenger became intrigued by mushrooms while growing up on a farm with a swamp in the back. “The wet environment was very conducive to mushroom growth, and as a child

wednesday, march 30, 2011


By paul inserra he spring sun fought its way through the dense canopy of trees and touched the forest floor. It had just rained and the smel...