My attitude to foraging for mushrooms has long been similar to many people’s attitude to foraging: too difficult, too risky, and not worth the trouble. I love mushrooms, and from experience I know that wild mushrooms are much more interesting than the varieties we can get in the stores, but somehow I just keep hoping someone I can trust will provide me with these delicacies. The only mushroom I have actually picked on my own was a puffball, and that hardly counts.
When people tell me they don’t forage because they figure they would likely make a fatal error, I patiently explain that if you just stick to the few, maybe two or three things that you know, there is really not a danger. It is not difficult to find a crabapple, a dandelion leaf, a wild raspberry, or some other familiar wild plant. Stick to that, make sure the area it grows in is unpolluted, and have a little fun with it. Once you get started on a small scale, your knowledge will likely grow, because that’s what happens when we try new things. I realise now the same thing can be said for mushrooms. Just as I started with puffballs, I am now ready for my second edible mushroom.
Of course, I don’t take mushrooms lightly, or for that matter any wild food. I never considered forging ahead (or foraging) on my own with no more than a picture or book as reference. As it happened, I was invited by a friend to visit her property with an actual mushroom expert with many years’ experience – someone with whom I felt quite safe. My intention was just to watch and learn, take a few photos and have a pleasant walk in the shade of the pine forest.
We spotted a number of mushrooms, but only a few varieties that we were allowed to pick. At this time of year, and in this area, the mushrooms ready for harvesting are mostly either slippery jacks (suillus luteus) or their close relative, boletus. The former I had never even heard of, although I’m pretty sure I have eaten them in the past. Boletus (also called ceps or porcini) were just a little more familiar, but not something I would have recognized on my own. We picked carefully, that is to say we checked for any previous predators (some kind of worm which is not visible but leaves a few minuscule holes).
The slippery jacks were easy to identify for a novice like me. The tops are indeed sticky to the touch, the bottoms of the young ones a creamy yellow, and with a porousness which becomes more apparent as they grow bigger. We picked mostly pretty small ones because they were the least affected by whatever affects mushrooms. Not a big deal, we just wanted the nicest, cleanest and creamiest looking ones.
The boletus are similar but darker, barely sticky at all and are more porous on the bottom. It seems there are many varieties of this kind, and most are bigger than the ones we found. While I could spot the slippery jacks on my own in the future, I still lack confidence to identify these without confirmation from someone who knows. None of my pictures of these turned out well, but since they were only a few among my harvest, I will just leave you with the images of the slippery jacks. For more pictures, check out this post here.
I was pretty chuffed with my basket of mushrooms, and decided to take the plunge and cook them. Irina, our guide and expert, kindly looked over my stash to make sure I hadn’t accidentally slipped anything noxious in, and instructed me on how to prepare them.
I followed her tips which were:
- Do not wash them in water. They absorb water and become mushy.
- Cut off the bottom part with any dirt, wipe the stem and base of the cap with a paper towel, and peel off the sticky surface of the slippery jack.
- Slice them and fry all together in a little butter for a few minutes.
My interest in mushroom gathering and confidence in my ability to learn this skill have been bolstered by this first foray into the realm. The dish, simple as it was, was so tasty, with a flavour and texture I haven’t experienced in a long time (when I used to be able to buy these at markets in far flung places I once lived). If I go no further with this, I will at least be more determined than ever to find sources where I can buy fresh, or even dried, wild mushrooms. There is nothing like them