In the Catskills May usually marks the real start of foraging season. Early oysters and elusive morels start to pop, followed by wine cap stropharia, for those of us who cultivate it or find some escaped from cultivation. June is prime time for finding plenty of medicinal reishi (Ganoderma tsuge). The end of June into July usually sees chanterelles beginning to emerge, along with chicken of the woods, lobster mushrooms, Laccaria ochropurpurea, various milk caps, and more oysters. By the end of July I usually have eaten my fill of chanterelles, stock piled tons in the freezer to dole out throughout the rest of the year, and enjoyed occasional finds of the rest. This year was different though.
This was my biggest haul of chanterelles this year. Usually I get a couple of baskets like this a week
Halfway through June and nearly the whole month of July we experienced a terrible drought. Ponds and springs started to dry up, the leaves wilted and started to change color on the trees, and after the first cutting of hay was finished the grass in the fields gave up and stopped growing. Along with all that, there was no moisture to encourage any mushroom growth. I found some tiny chanterelle buttons, trying to grow, but with no success. At that point I just resigned myself to having a bad year on the mushroom front.
Tiny chanterelle buttons, only growing because the leaves covering them were able to keep in a tiny amount of moisture
Now that we’ve finally had some decent rainfall we’re being repaid in spades for our patience throughout the first half of the season. I was about to get enough chanterelles to put a couple of pounds away for the winter, and there’s a chance we may see another flush before the season completely runs out, but the wealth of other mushrooms out there has really made up for the poor chanterelle year.
One mushroom that is having a banner year right now is Amanita jacksonii. This is an edible mushroom related to some of the most deadly mushrooms in the world. Therefore, it’s not recommended for beginners to pick and eat. You can read more about it in this blog post I did detailing my journey to finally eating it.
This also seems to be a particularly great year for ghost pipes/indian pipes (Monotropa uniflora). These aren’t actually mushrooms, although many people initially think they are. They’re non-photosythetic plants that have developed symbiotic relationships with a variety of mushrooms. Seeing as they don’t photosynthesize they have no pigment (the green pigment chlorophyll is the most important pigment in photosynthesis, but other pigments play a role as well), and are fed nutrients by allowing the mycelium (in some ways analogous to roots) of various fungi to tap into them and feed them what they need to survive. In some parts of the country these are rare, but in the Catskills we have them in great abundance. They aren’t tasty, but they are medicinal. They’re known to be a strong painkiller, although there hasn’t been much formal research on them and what is known is mostly anecdotal. I tinctured some last year and haven’t found it to be effective, but I plan to try again.
In addition to A. jacksonii and ghost pipes the past week has been an excellent week for boletes. Boletes are a category of mushrooms that have pores rather than gills. Their caps look similar to gilled mushrooms, but when you look at the underside it’s characterized by a spongy layer with many small holes. Boletes can be tricky to identify because there are so many of them. There may be as many as 300 distinct bolete species in North America. In addition to this mycologists frequently change the genus of various boletes, disagree about whether particular boletes are distinct species or variations of another species, and the boletes themselves don’t always conform to the characteristics used in their identification. For some the only way to pin down an exact identification is via microscopy or DNA sequencing.
Nice young porcini, a choice edible bolete
One out of a good haul of young porcini
Needless to say, that’s a bit over my pay grade, and I only delve into the very shallow waters of bolete identification. Primarily what I look for are porcinis, mushrooms in the Boletus edulis clade. In this case a clade is a complex or grouping of mushrooms that appear similar to each other, and have often been used similarly, but are distinctly different species. For Boletus edulis (the classic Italian porcini) there are as many as thirty six distinct species in the clade, although in America we probably have fewer than twenty of those. They’re usually distinguished by their white pore surfaces, which age to yellow then olive, white or off white stems, sometimes with fine reticulation, brown or brownish caps, and non-bitter taste when nibbled raw. This is another mushroom that could have it’s own long post, but for now I’ll just say that I’ve found a lot so far. Over the past week I’ve found and dried about 15lbs of porcini. Drying is a great way to preserve these, and for the older specimens it’s the preferred method of using. Once dried they can be stored for a year or longer and added to soups, stews, and sauces to provide richness and umami flavor. Reconstituted they can be added to ricotta and stuffed into ravioli, turned into a filling for meat or poultry, or incorporated into risotto. As you can see, they’re very versatile, and a joy to cook with.
Young porcinis are nice and firm, as they mature they get spongier and buggy
Heather Ridge Farm ribeye with vin de noix glazed porcini, Amanita jacksonii and tomato salad
Finally, I’ll share a little about an exciting find that I had on Saturday. I’ve found Lactarius indigo before, but only once, and only two of them. I didn’t find a windfall amount this time, but I was thrilled to find them none the less. Lactarius is a genus of “milk cap” mushrooms. They’re called this because when you cut them they leak a milky fluid. Some of them are edible, very tasty, and particularly relished in Eastern European cuisines. Others are edible but so peppery that they can’t be enjoyed, and some are outright toxic. Indigo milk caps are named so because they leak a vibrant indigo blue milk then cut. They’re really wild looking, and even more remarkable that they’re edible and tasty. Unfortunately they turn black when you cook them, which isn’t so pretty, but they’re gorgeous when fresh.
Young Lactarius indigo caps, with the freshly cut end leaking blue latex
That about wraps up what I’m finding out there so far. I’m still watching a tree that I found some old chicken of the woods on in December, waiting to see if any will fruit this year. I’m also hoping for another couple of lobster mushrooms, but we don’t see many around here. Within a couple of weeks it’ll be time to look out for maitake, or hen of the woods (Grifola frondosa), and lions mane (Hericium genus), mostly early fall mushrooms around here, and markers of the end of the beginning of the end season in the Catskills.