Fickle fall weather is hardly a deterrent when it comes to foraging for wild mushrooms; in fact, long spates of damp weather punctuated by warm, sunny spells mean magic for mycologists and weekend foragers alike. “This is prime mushroom season,” says Vanessa Tarasuk on an early October morning, pausing beneath a tall stand of hemlocks. She motions toward a visible ring of pristine, white fungi springing forth from a proliferation of slick, wet leaves. As we wend our way down a path punctuated by mossy covered rocks and lichen encrusted trunks of hardwood trees, one thing becomes abundantly clear: the northwest corner of Connecticut is teeming with edible mushrooms.
“The mycelium is what’s important,” says Tarasuk, describing a veritable lifeline for the fungus, one hidden underground or spread throughout the host upon which it is growing. Leaving the mycelium intact and uninterrupted is perhaps the cardinal rule when foraging for fungi. Tarasuk compares mushrooms to apples, noting that an apple tree left to flourish in proper conditions will produce apples season after season. Same goes for mushrooms; they will return, year after year, so long as there is an ample supply of decomposing matter. When gathering mushrooms for eating or identifying, Tarasuk implores the use of a knife for separating the mushrooms from the mycelium without harm. Which begs the next question: where do edible mushrooms grow?
“I look for habitat,” explains Tarasuk who scours the pine forest floor for evidence of Tricholoma matsutake—or pine mushrooms—prized in Asian cuisine for their intense aroma and pine-like flavor. The acidity in pine needles plays host to many species of mushrooms as do oak forests which is where we stumble upon a smattering of Lepista nuda, or wood blewits. Easily identified by unmistakably hued caps—ranging from lilac to lavender—these cool weather mushrooms pop up in gentle arcs or fairy rings and are often found in the company of chanterelles, despite the latter being at their prime in the summer months.
For Tarasuk, whose fascination with edible mushrooms began when she was in college, it’s all about identification. To cross reference her abundant knowledge gleaned from books and first-hand experience, she refers to spore prints. This simple process requires inverting a single mushroom cap on a sheet of white paper which allows the mushroom “to drop their little spores down to make a pattern, like a thumbprint” says Tarasuk. This seemingly complex step can be used in conjunction with the size, shape, color, and growth pattern of a mushroom to positively identify one species from another.
More than two dozen varieties of mushrooms are prime for fall picking in Connecticut. And while many foragers keep mum as to their favorite spots, Tarasuk divulges this kernel of wisdom: forest land that remains undisturbed is not only key, but will also reveal the most abundant cache of mushrooms. While roaming the gently sloping forest abutting Campbell Falls State Park in Norfolk, we stumbled upon a number of gem-studded or jewelled puffballs (Lycoperdon perlatum); wood ears (Auricularia auricula-judae) clinging to a diminutive fallen branch; honey mushrooms or oak mushrooms (Armillaria mellea); brittle gills (Russula); and slippery jack (Suillus luteus) which are reputedly delicious when dried.
And for those of you who are still skeptical? “It’s really hard to mistake a poisonous lookalike for the real thing if you know what you are looking for,” Tarasuk emphasizes, noting that many Americans are rather mushroom phobic. Tarasuk works deftly to fill a woven bag with specimens, in varying sizes and stages of development, before slinging the loot over her shoulder by a pair of thin, leather straps. We are in search of the coveted hen-of-the-woods (Grifola frondosa), always found on the ground, and often nestled in rotting material at the base of oak trees. And so we keep our heads down and keep moving, in search of the elusive maitake.