oraging is one of the oldest skills of humankind, but for most of us it remains a lost art. We may pick the odd blackberry here or there, but in general we have been taught to be wary of putting in our mouths the things we find in the wild.
Fall is a good season to be a forager in New England. Even when the curtain comes down on the summer garden with the finality of a killing frost, and only late season raspberries cling to the vine, there are wild and feral foods to be had for those with the eyes and inclination to see them.
Over the weekend, my young children and I helped ourselves to a bushel of
apples from two trees near their school. Despite being untended, the apples were crisp and rosy and we spent a decadent afternoon in the kitchen using all those arcane implements of the home canner to good effect. We turned out applesauce (that didn’t need a pinch of sugar), apple crisp and a deep-dish pie, and all agreed that the fruits of our labor tasted far sweeter than those processed elsewhere.
Apples are a marvelous but conventional offering. Something far more unusual presented itself on our street recently: My wife alerted me to the presence of several conical mushrooms growing near the base of a Norway maple, a tree I have little use for either aesthetically for its rot-prone form or ecologically for its invasive qualities. In this case it proved a beneficial association, for from my wife’s description I was pretty sure that what I would find there was going to be delicious.
To spare my good editors any incipient distress, this is a good point to pause and say that your parents were right to tell you to steer clear of wild mushrooms. Those who experiment with mushroom hunting without making a careful and meticulous study of the subject are exposing themselves to possibly lethal poisoning.
That said, there are a good number of wonderfully fragrant and thoroughly edible wild mushrooms that grow in our area, and I have made a point of learning a dozen or so that are easily identified in the field and not readily confused with baneful varieties.
The specimens at the base of the tree were
shaggy manes(Coprinus comatus
), a variety of inky cap mushroom that fruits in spring and again in fall. They can reach as much as 6 inches in height and look like folded parasols with brown caps and shaggy scales that resemble a barrister’s wig. They are best picked before their white edges start to tatter and their gills blacken by a process of autodigestion — which is how they release their spores. They should be sautéed quickly to prevent them from becoming discolored.
I showed my children how to make careful observations and key out the identification of our specimens using field guides. We noted the hollow stems and inky gills and, after cross-referencing with any look-alike species, felt confident about our find.
A hot skillet and a bit of butter later and four shaggy manes found their way to our plates. My son, Elias, as usual, was nothing loathe and tucked right in. My daughter, Emily, who is fastidious in her many food aversions, inexplicably pronounced them delicious.
This chance discovery gave me the opportunity to impress upon my children that foraging for mushrooms or any other wild food is an activity that only happens with adult supervision. Besides, it helps to have extra eyes, closer to the ground, when mushroom hunting. There are still
lobster mushrooms, giant puffballsandsulfur shelves
waiting out there in the autumn woods and fields for us to discover before the season passes.