Fungi foraging: A delicious outdoor pastime

The morel mushroom is highly prized by mushroom hunters. Photo courtesy of Shenandoah National Park

Mushroom foraging may not necessarily be considered a prevalent hobby, but the Shenandoah Valley offers myriad opportunities.

Of those mushrooms deemed to be the most sought-after — and expensive if purchased — the morel, of the genus Morchella, is at the top of most lists. This small mushroom known for its nutty flavor and meaty consistency and arbitrary distribution makes it challenging prey for the mushroom hunter.

The first thing a prospective forager needs to know is what to look for. Phil Bourjaily, of Field and Stream magazine, says vigilance is vital.

“For morels, fence lines, bases of trees, recently burned areas can all be good, and keep your eyes open, because they can sprout anywhere,” he stated in an email. “Early in the season they are usually in spots where they get some sun.”

Shenandoah National Park allows anyone who pays the park entrance fee to forage for wild mushrooms. One gallon of mushrooms per person is allowed to be taken from the park per day.

The chicken of the woods mushroom is a popular wild mushroom, and tastes like chicken. Photo courtesy of Gloria Schoenholtz of virginiawildflowers.org

The time of year is vital, as certain soil conditions are required for the mushrooms to grow.

“It usually takes about a week of nights with lows in the 40s or 50s for morels to start growing in the spring,” said Bourjaily. “The ground temperature needs to reach the low 50s before they will grow. It’s about a four-week season.”

The soil temperature is paramount, as mushrooms, not unlike yeast, require a specific temperature range to sprout — too hot: no mushrooms, too cold — no mushrooms, said Robert Compton, a forager from Linden who has hunted wild mushrooms for nearly 20 years. In addition to knowledge about the soil in the area, Compton says it helps to know trees.

“Always spot specific trees,” he said. “If you look around oak trees, you’re pretty much wasting your time. Ash, elm, birch, tulip poplars are easy to identify and mushrooms grow around them.”

Compton says that morels are not the only wild mushroom in the area, and some have some colorful names. Chicken of the woods is one highly prized mushroom that foragers in the area target. Their flavor and texture are, according to Compton, very similar to their namesake.

“It tastes almost identical to chicken and has the same mouth feel,” he said. It’s a very dense mushroom. A lot of people make hot wings with them or chicken parmesan. They’re a bright peach color.”

A keen and educated eye is the most important tool as a mushroom hunter, as many know that the consumption of one bad mushroom could be their last. The mantra of virtually all mushroom foragers is “if you’re not sure, don’t eat it,” For example, false morels, somewhat similar in appearance to morels, are anything but fine dining.

“There are a few in that species that are toxic, and when you cook them, they release the same chemical compound as rocket fuel,” Compton said. “The vapors are toxic…It causes liver failure over time as the toxin breaks down your liver, and it stays in the liver and kills it.”

In addition to an educated and scrutinizing eye, there are a few other tools that a forager will need.

“You need a walking stick,” said Bourjaily. “Mushroom hunters use them to poke around on the ground, move leaves, etc. to give them a better view of the ground.”

Also needed is a sharp knife for harvesting . When it comes to bag choice, Compton says to use whatever is lying around. Both Compton and Bourjaily said a canvas shopping tote works well. Burlap or paper bags are also good.

Some in the mushroom foraging community say a porous bag is needed in order to allow mushroom spores to be scattered, but Compton says this isn’t necessary, as very few species actually reproduce in this manner. Plastic bags are probably not the best choice. The lack of porosity means that condensation will occur and impact the mushrooms negatively.

Mushrooms are among the most versatile foods on the planet, with virtually all applications and techniques pairing well with the fungi. They can be fried, sautéed, stuffed, added to soups, pastas or anything else where a deep, earthy flavor is desired.

“Most people where I live bread and fry morels,” said Bourjaily. “My dad fried them in beer batter, which was terrific. I like them sautéed. They go very well in scrambled eggs in the morning, maybe with a little tarragon or some blue cheese stirred in, too.”

Contact staff writer Nathan Budryk at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or nbudryk@nvdaily.com