Fungi and their reproductory organs, mushrooms, are so attractive and mysterious that I'm sure as you discover them better, you will (relatively) lose interest in gastronomy in favor of other considerations. However, this guide will cover especially mushroom hunting for gastronomical purposes.

Seasons

The main mushroom season is autumn (and for some species spring), but in mountain areas where the right conditions arrive earlier, they can often be found even at the end of the summer. Species like porcini and lactarius deliciosus appear towards the beginning to middle of autumn; chanterelles can appear slightly earlier, at the end of the summer, and meadow mushrooms grow in the spring.

Mushroom Hunting Guide
Credit: Maria F.

Collection

To avoid poisoning, there are some basic rules that we must never break if the mushrooms are intended for consumption:

  • Do not collect any mushrooms that have not been properly identified, and this involves looking at each and every one of the individuals that enter the basket, even if it is time-taking.
  • Some mushrooms have a tendency to accumulate heavy metals, so it is discouraged to collect them on roadsides or areas that have been sprayed.
  • If a mushroom seems old, it is better to leave it because it can more easily cause indigestion. Only collect the young specimens.
  • Avoid foolproof methods to distinguish an edible mushroom as:
    • “If we put a silver object in the cooking water and the silver darkens, it is a poisonous mushroom.”
    • “Ring mushrooms are edible.”
    • “Mushrooms that smell and taste good are edible.”
    • “If we see an animal eating a mushroom it’s because the mushroom is edible.”

ALL THESE METHODS ARE FALSE AND WILL END UP IN DISASTER.

 

But besides not being intoxicated, we will surely want to return the following year to pick mushrooms that we know can be found, so we must also respect a few guidelines:

 

  • All mushrooms have a function in Nature, even the poisonous ones, so we will refrain from kicking mushrooms thinking that we are doing “Nature” or “others” some kind of favor
  • When putting them in the basket, make sure that the gills/pores are looking down, so that you will help spread the spores but also prevent any possible staining, as they’re the most delicate part of the mushroom in general.
  • Cutting it is also an important part, the idea is to cause the least damage to the mycelium underneath. If we bring a knife (which you should if you intend to become a “qualified” hunter!), we can introduce it into the ground about 2 cm (an inch), and cut the stalk diagonally so that we take the full mushroom and prevent any remains on the ground to rot causing damage to the mycelium. Then we will fill the hole that we have left with some soil and we will press a little. The recommendation used to be that they should be cut at ground level, but lately it has been discovered that this approach is counterproductive to the health of the fungus, even in cases where we only eat the cap.

Tools

The mushroom hunting kit should consist of the following tools:

  • Wicker basket: it helps spreading the spores as we walk. Furthermore, the use of plastic bags can cause fermentation and the generation of toxins, so we should avoid it.
  • Knife: A foldable knife (like the Swiss ones) is better than a kitchen knife because you can close it, preventing any accidents; slips are frequent.
  • Brush: To clean the dirt of mushrooms before putting inside the basket. If we keep the basket free of dirt, we will shorten the worst part of mushroom hunting: going back home and having to clean them.
  • One of my latest additions is the iPhone app Mycelium, which helps you remember exactly where you got all those nice samples last year, or any other new places you discover this year. Not to share with your neighbors or you will end up not having any mushrooms for yourself!
Opinel Beechwood Handle Mushroom Knife, 8 cm Blade
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Vintiquewise(TM) QI003056 Rectangular Chip Picnic Basket
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Cleaning

Once at home, with our basket full of mushrooms, we must preserve them and this requires different methods. The concern here should be to clean them with as little water as possible, not only because it helps preserve them, but also because the mushrooms lose flavor when washed. We will try to remove all the dirt on the spot when collecting them, and in any case we will first clean them by wiping with a damp cloth. Ultimately we can dip them a bit in water and let them release the dirt.

You can preserve them in different ways:

Drying: there are mushrooms that tend to become dry if left in the sun, in a dry and cool place (but be careful not to put too many together ot they will rot)

Freezing: for this you first have to remove the water by cooking them a bit with a drizzle of oil; once the water has evaporated, we can label them and package them for freezing and later consumption. Note that there are some that gain in quality when frozen, for example porcini, winning in both flavor dryness. To use them, we directly thaw them in a hot pan. Once thawed, we can add them to any dish: scrambled eggs, stews, rice, etc… or simply have them grilled.

Mushroom Cookbook: Recipes for White & Exotic Varieties
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(price as of Oct 11, 2016)