Be a Fungiphile, Not a Fungiphobe

Fall in love with Wild Mushrooms

The fruit of a mycelia mat underneath the forest floor, wild mushrooms poke their way through the duff, after only the most specific of conditions are met, and are frustratingly fleeting. After some good rains and a bit of summer heat, I did notice that mushrooms popped up like a Mario Brothers game in my local forest. Like many Americans, I was terrified to touch any of them, much less to eat them. Food comes from the grocery store, right? I was definitely in the Fungiphobe category.

Then I was indoctrinated into the cult of the mushroom hunting. I had a friend who had hunted and gathered mushrooms in the area for about 30 years. He was just about the funnest person I’d ever met, too, so when he graciously offered to take me along on one of his adventures I jumped at the chance.

Rituals & Superstitions

We set off one August morning, with our backpacks and provisions for a day of hunting. I learned the necessities for a good hunt are: a curved mushroom knife and brush, cotton bags for storing finds, some hard cheese, crusty bread, dark chocolate, and a flask of chantrelle-infused vodka.

Cluster of Porcinis

There was a whole ritual to it, that I loved immediately. When we arrived at the mountain, first we had to check this one spot where the my mentor had found morels one time. That spot must be checked first, every time. The first porcini of the season to be found, all participants on the hunt must gather around to celebrate, but also to smell it….to get the scent in your nose for the season!

Mushroom hunters have their superstitions. For example, my mentor would not take out his knife until he actually found a precious edible mushroom to harvest. To take it out immediately at the start of the hunt would ensure the mushrooms would hide from him. He had made up songs that he merrily sang as we rambled along the mountain side that he swore ‘woke up’ the mushrooms. “I’m a landloving pirate, I like to hiking, I don’t like the deep blue sea…I like fungi and cheeses, and cool mountain breezes, I don’t like the calamariiiiii….’

Not just out for a hike

Unlike hiking, hunting requires you to walk along no particular path, sometimes zig-zagging across the same grounds several times. Rather than looking up at the trees kissing the sky, or out at some vista, your eyes are cast down, looking for mushrooms that have a knack for hiding in plain sight. Eyes darting from near to far, sure that you’re walking right by a pristine mushroom poppin’ fresh through the duff. And yep….while you are looking ten feet away, a fellow hunter following you will find one two feet from where you’re standing!

Happy Hunters

Going with a group definitely adds camaraderie and a bit of healthy competition. It can become tribal. You come across another group of hunters, and you exchange pleasantries, but everyone gets vague about what mushrooms they may have harvested or where they had found luck. Your bags full of chantrelles, you stuff into your backpack and say something vague like “Good day out here, huh?” A true hunter will never give up their happy hunting grounds to just any old passer-by.

You Always Remember Your First

What do you do when you find a mushroom? You sit down, shut up, and look for his friends. That was the advice I was given. On my inaugural hunt, I came across what I believed to be the sought-after porcini mushroom. I was so excited….I exclaimed loudly as I whipped out my knife. I slashed it willy-nilly from the ground, and ran off with it to get verification of the find. After brushing it off gently, I presented it to the expert. It was indeed a porcini, nice and fresh, hardly a nibble from a chipmunk on it. Like a good teacher, he directed me to go back to where I found it. Sure enough, there were three other porcinis right nearby, bearing witness to my lack of experience.

Why be a Fungiphile

I was lucky to start mushroom hunting during a wet and hot summer, ideal conditions for forest fungus. I was able to find and learn about so many different types of mushrooms. With a personal mentor to ensure that things were safe, along with my handy field guide, I was able to move into the Fungiphile category. We made fresh porcini ravioli, wild mushroom paté, hawk’s wings stew, and chanterelles and eggs. It was a satisfying way to feel in touch with nature, connected to a group of friends, and culinarily blessed. I was hooked.

Over the years, I have spent many happy hours wandering through the forest, occasionally perching on a rock to enjoy a snack while examining the finds in my mushroom bag. I have shared it with new friends, added new traditions, new verses to my mentor’s song. Foraging has added a whole new dimension to the forest, not only looking up and out, but down at the life underground. I feel empowered knowing which of them are tasty and nutritious, and which are not. I have a whole new appreciation for the role fungus plays in making a healthy forest for me to enjoy. I hope this inspires you to get out and appreciate some fungus in your neck of the woods 🙂

Recommendations for Further Fungi Fun

  • Paul Stamets – Mycologist and Fungiphile Extraordinaire. Check out his website for a look into his extensive library of books and other writings.
  • David Arora’s All the Rain Promises captures the culture of mushroom hunters as well as being extremely useful in identifying mushrooms commonly found in the US Mountain West.
  • Check out Guiliana Furci on the Tim Ferris Show podcast, she’s the Jane Goodall for fungus.
  • The most amazing time lapse videos and documentaries, check out Stephen Axford’s YouTube channel Planet Fungi

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