By Annette Gallagher Weisman
EdibleAspen – Fall 2009

Pleasures and Perils of Mushroom Hunting

Many Aspenites have seen bears foraging for food, but the bears are not alone; if you go down to the woods today, you may find your neighbor foraging for mushrooms. Aside from mycologists, who study these fungi, local cooks and foodies are ebullient hunters and gatherers. That’s partly due to a renewed desire for sustainable living, accompanied by a primeval satisfaction in finding and cooking one’s own food. And the mere aroma of mushrooms sautéing in a pan is for some sheer ecstasy — that of a happy gourmet looking forward to a delectable meal.

Lisa and Shawn Lawrence, of Basalt, are frequent foragers. Lisa, a former pastry chef, teaches third grade at Aspen Elementary School and does occasional cooking stints with Randy Placeres of Nutrition and Aspen Culinary Solutions. Shawn is the executive chef at 39 Degrees in the Sky Hotel.

The Lawrences find mushrooms everywhere in the valley but prefer the high-alpine forest mushrooms on Aspen Mountain and Independence Pass. They decline to reveal specific locations, as foragers rarely disclose their favorite mushroom haunts. “We try hard to disorient our guests by taking circuitous routes through the mountains,” says Lisa. “That way we are sure they would be hard pressed to rediscover the spot.”

Their favorite local mushrooms include king bolete (porcini), a gorgeous, rusty-red brown specimen with spongy gills; hawk’s wing, or shingled hedgehog, mushrooms, which have a rough, scaled top; and snow bank morels and golden morels, which have a holey spongy look. They’ve also found puffballs, shaggy manes and oyster mushrooms. The Lawrences eat them all, and the larger porcini they roast, blend or freeze to be used for soup. Surplus mushrooms they give to friends, confit (jar and preserve in oil) or roast and then freeze.

Because of the varied terrain in Aspen and differences in altitude, you can discover numerous kinds of edible mushrooms while participating in a fun outdoor adventure. According to Ellen Jacobson, recorder for the Colorado Mycological Society (CMS), there are about 800 species of mushroom on the Denver Mycological Society’s regional list. But that list dwindles considerably in
the Aspen area’s unique high-alpine environment. Mycology expert Vera Stuckey Evenson, author of “Mushrooms of Colorado” and an instructor at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies since 1982, estimates there are approximately 200 mushroom species in the Roaring Fork Valley.

In theory, anyone can pick up a flat-bottomed container and a multitooled knife with a brush for cutting and cleaning, and head for the meadows and mountains, thinking with any luck they could be dining on chanterelle risotto by suppertime. But in reality, that’s risky business. For instance, the white-polka-dotted Amanita muscaria mushroom is poisonous. What’s more, it’s commonly found in Aspen. If you are new to foraging, take the time to learn about the process.

“Novices should go with someone who knows about mushrooms, preferably a member of CMS,” says Marilyn Shaw, toxicology and education chair for the society, which educates people about all aspects of fungi. “But don’t depend on someone else,” she adds. “Get a good field guide and study it. Read the descriptions, don’t just look at the pictures; read the general descriptions of families; read all the general information about using the guide; practice using the ‘keys’ [for identification]; and make notes about vegetation and trees in the area and other habitat information.”

“My best tip for successful mushroom hunting, or how to come home with a full basket and not empty handed,” says Ellen Jacobson, “is to pay attention to the weather — temperature, rainfall and humidity. Find out about precipitation in your favorite area. Hunt habitat, and not mushroom.”

Because mushrooms love moisture and do not fruit above ground during the dryer parts of the summer, the best time for foraging is August through September (or through the first hard freeze), though morels are found in spring. And while mushrooms may be plentiful one year, the next year the same spot may produce nothing, if, say, worms or chipmunks got there first. Serendipity has a lot to do with successful hunting.

Mushrooms have inspired writers and poets, and stories about these fungi have been mythologized for thousands of years. It’s no wonder they intrigue us even today. For all their mystery, the unveiled pleasure for any foragers is in the eating. So sharpen your knife and enjoy.