Tuesday, May 10, 2016

A Short History of Mushroom Hunting and How to Do It Today

(The Fluted White Helvella, Common Helvel, Elfin Saddle, White Saddle or Helvella crispa is often seen in European markets and Mexican cuisine. However, toxins in the mushroom can be quite potent unless the mushroom undergoes prolonged cooking. Mushrooms growing at Beartree Lake in VA.)
Long, long ago, when the first cave-men needed food, the mysterious but reliable mushroom provided fulfillments to many of their culinary needs. For thousands of years man has foraged edible fungus, and only until recently has learned the secret of cultivating the mushroom. So, in that long gap between the discovery of the edible fungus and the cultivation of it, humans required some method to gather edible fungus. They would hunt it, of course. Called mushroom hunting, mushrooming, mushroom picking or mushroom foraging, the art of collecting mushrooms has slowly advanced through the ages, metamorphosing from necessity to a useful hobby. However, mushroom hunting is dangerous because of poisonous look-alikes which are prevalent in the same moist, fertile areas in which edible mushrooms are found. Because of this, skill sets were developed by experts over the generations and so forth minimizing the fatalities exhibited by mycophagy, that is, the ingestion of mushrooms by organisms.
Hunts for mushrooms in Europe are as old as European culture itself. Celtic and Eastern European mushroom pickings for the White Button Mushroom (Agaricus bisporus), French truffle hunts, and English forays for Witch's Eggs, the immature stage of the stinkhorn mushrooms in the genus Mutinus date back into some of the oldest mushroom hunts in Europe.
And as with other customs, European mushroom hunting came to America along with European colonists. As mushroom hunting in America advanced, a few species of mushrooms became popular, such as morels, bradleys, oyster mushrooms and chanterelles.
(Cantharellus tubeaformis, also known as the Yellowfoot, Winter Mushroom or Funnel Chanterelle is a small chanterelle that tastes fairly good if well-cooked.)
Nowadays, in modern times, mushroom hunting is only enjoyed by a handful of folks. Most people, due to lack of necessity, forgot the art of mushroom hunting. The mushroom foragers today are known as mycophiles, and often have expertise in identifying fungus. If you learn about fungi, it is not hard to become a mycophiles. Only simple gear is needed. Today, collection baskets, a few field guides and dichotomous keys as well as a hand lens and possibly a mushroom knife will be sufficient to collect all sorts of mushrooms. But beware, practice is necessary before one can eat all sorts of mushrooms. A typical field guide will boast a list of similar fungi to a species, to help prevent identification errors. These mushrooms are dangerous to beginners.
(The regal Amanita bisporigera is a very lethal mushroom that looks ironically like a variety of edible mushrooms, including the average storebought White Button Mushroom.)
Here is sort of a list of how a mycophile may learn how to collect all kinds of mushrooms.
  • First, beginners need to ask the help of an expert. Many local forays are held all over the Southern Appalachians and experts may identify some edible mushrooms for the novice forager.
  • Second, beginners may want to forage on their own. Only the most absolutely edible fungus such as morels and oyster mushrooms with no look-alikes whatsoever should be sought after in their own particular seasons.
  • Third, a mushroom hunter may want to try looking for a species with other edible look-alikes, such as a golden chanterelle. This helps you learn how to pinpoint a species without any accidents.
  • Fourth, a mushroom hunter, with their gained experience, may now want to hunt mushrooms with poisonous look-alikes. More care must be taken in collecting this fungus.
  • Finally, an expert mushroom hunter who has successfully foraged for mushrooms before may take difficult to identify fungus such as edibles in the genus Amanita and also mushrooms with only certain edible growth stages, such as in the Elegant Stinkhorn.
So, as you can see, expertise is achieved by practicing the art of mushroom hunting. Hunting mushrooms is a great activity to do with family and friends as well, and if you really enjoy looking for fungi, mycophiles that probably reside in your community may be willing to go on forays and pickings. Also, once you learn how to hunt and identify mushrooms, you may want to try to cultivate some.
(Armillaria mellea, the Honey Mushroom. Though a prized edible, it has a ring on its stalk that is easy to confuse with that of a deadly Amanita and has the power to damage and destroy certain coniferous forests.)