Friday, September 30, 2011

Matsutake (Tricholoma magnivelare)

Season: September - October
Edibility: Unique and delicious.  Not for beginners due to potential confusion with dangerous species.
Defining characteristics: Found near Eastern Hemlock and Jack Pine (at least in the new england region). Intense aroma that is decidedly Matsutake- think a combination of spicy cinnamon and musty socks.  I am not aware of any other mushroom that smells like this- rich, earthy, spicy, and almost intoxicating.  Growing very close to the ground, often with the stem several inches deep.  A veil covers the gills when immature, leaving a ring on the mature mushroom.  There are often dark markings/stains on the cap and base of the stem.

Young and mature Matsutake.  Note the ring on the
specimen on the right, and veil on the left.
Matsutake is one of the most highly sought after mushrooms in Japan.  The unique aroma, taste, and beauty of this mushroom have led to it being valued at hundreds of dollars a pound in Japan for prime specimens (young with a full veil and in pristine condition).  The primary commercial harvesting areas are in the Pacific Northwest, however there are Matsutake to find here in New England.  I have not found them in Rhode Island yet, but they are reported to be found on Cape Cod, and I have found them in Maine.  They are also reported to be fairly common in parts of Quebec.

High quality Matsutake next to a couple just starting to poke
out of the ground (this is a good stage to harvest them at)
You definitely want to be careful with identifying Matsutake.  There is a condition known as mushroom collecting fever, where an excited forager thinks every mushroom they find just happens to be the long sought after delicious delicacy, with little regard to checking its defining characteristics.  I only ate Matsutake that I collected after three years of searching for, and finding them.  The first two years I collected what I thought where Matsutake (and now know they actually where), took photos, and read up on them.  I was not fully convinced so I chose not to eat them.  It wasn't until this year when I found the same mushrooms growing in the same spots, with the same aroma, and a couple more years of accumulated wisdom that I finally was sure of what I had.
Matsutake on the left, golden chanterelles on the right.

They are delicious, and the aroma is amazing.  A little bit stinky, a little bit spicy, and a lot heady.  After sautéing in a bit of butter and a dash of salt it is without comparison.  There is a firm texture with a taste that is very complex.  It is hard to describe it except as Matsutake-like.

David Spahr has an excellent description of the Northeastern Matsutake on his website, and you can also read more at the Mushroom Expert or Tom Volk's website.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Beefsteak Polypore (Fistulina hepatica)

Season: Fall
Edibility: Tasty.  Remarkably like beef, with a noticeable tart character.
Defining characteristics:  Looks like a slab of raw beef growing at the base of a dead or dying tree.  Not much you can confuse this one with!  It has a bright red color, is a polypore (i.e. it has pores not gills on its underside), and exudes a reddish juice when cut.
Sometimes confused with:  Hunks of raw meat hanging out in the woods.  Not much else.
Recommend cooking method: Sautéed in a little butter with a dash of salt.  Just like a high quality steak.
Beefsteak polypore

The beefsteak polypore is a pretty unique mushroom.  I was rather grossed out by it the first time I ran across it in the woods (seeing as it looks and feels rather like a bloody steak), but now that I have enjoyed it's culinary qualities it is much more attractive.  This year (2011) is the first season I have seen this mushroom in Rhode Island, and sources suggest that is a fairly uncommon mushroom in the Northeast.  Time will tell, but I certainly would be happy to see it around more.

All the specimens I have seen have been at the base of dying oak trees growing solitarily or in a very small clump.  You probably are never going to find enough of these to reliably make a meal, but I would certainly recommend trying them out if you get the chance.

(Note location at base of tree, and honey mushrooms
sprouting on the right hand edge of photo)
They are the third of the edible polypores that we find here in Rhode Island (and New England in general), along with the Chicken of the Woods, and Hen of the Woods.  Definitely the least common of the three, but they make up a great family of mushrooms that are all quite safe to eat and easy to identify.

Flavor wise, it is pretty remarkably like beef.  There is a definite sour/tart note to it (just imagine a steak with a lemon marinade), but it is a pretty awesome meat substitute.
Sliced beefsteak polypore

If you find any, please post a comment as to what are you live in, when you found them, and what you thought of them- I am interested to see how often people encounter these curiosities!

To read more from qualified sources check out: Wildman or Wikipedia.

Timeline of edible mushroom in Rhode Island

Here is a basic timeline of when I am finding which edibles in Rhode Island (and elsewhere as noted).  This is not a comprehensive list of what you might find, but rather what I find when I get the chance to forage and the weather is cooperating.  

2011 (pretty great fall for mushrooms)
  • Bicolor Bolete
  • Chicken of the woods
  • Black Trumpet
  • Chicken of the woods
  • Hen of the woods
  • Hedgehog
  • Beefsteak polypore
  • Honey mushroom
  • Chicken of the woods
  • Hen of the woods
  • Painted bolete
  • Lactarius hygrophoroides
2010 (not a good year)
  • Chicken of the woods
  • Hen of the woods
2009 (decent year)

  • Bicolor Bolete
  • Chestnut Bolete


  • Hen of the woods

  • Chicken of the woods
  • Hen of the woods
  • Golden Chanterelle (found in Maine)

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Honey Mushroom (Armillaria mellea)

Season: Late summer and fall.
Edibility: Not for beginners- but quite tasty.
Defining characteristics:  Honey colored cap with fine black fibers on the cap (particularly in the center of the cap).  A prominent ring high up on the stalk, and if you look closely the gills tend to run down the stalk to the ring (this can be a subtle effect on some specimens).  The stalk is tough and often hairy.  Generally growing in large to gigantic clusters, at the base of dead or dying trees.   Spore print white or pale cream (NOTE- spore color is extremely important in identifying honey mushrooms).
Sometimes confused with: Galerina marginata, Pholiota sp.Gymnopilus sp.

Young honey mushrooms
The honey mushroom is a common fall mushroom that can appear in huge quantities.  While it is a tasty mushroom (think a milder version of the shitake), there are several dangerous species that look similar and you DONT want to eat.  Please be very careful before harvesting honeys and be sure of what you have!  It should also be noted that there are many species of honey mushrooms that are all similar, but may vary in one or two of these factors.  Be careful and ID before you eat.

This basic checklist will help make sure you have a honey:
  • Is it growing at the base of a dead or dying tree?
  • Does it have a ring near the top of the stalk?
  • Is it growing in a large clump?
  • Is the spore print white?
  • Is the cap honey colored with dark fibers/hairs?
If your mushroom meets all the criteria above and matches photos online (a good test is to do a google image search for the species in question and look at a lot of photos to see the range of appearances) then you probably have a honey.  Again, if you are in doubt, throw it out.

There is a latent bitter/acrid flavor to raw honey mushrooms that slowly develops in your mouth over 20-30 seconds.  Cooking well (15 minutes or more) removes this bitter flavor and makes it more palatable and safe.  It is reported that a small percentage of people are also sensitive to the honey mushroom, so eat a small amount the first time.

The honey mushroom has the impressive distinction of being named the largest single organism in the world (a single specimen in Oregon covers 2,000 acres).  It is a parasitic mushroom that spreads underground via its mycelium and rhizomorphs, attacking and killing weak trees.  The mushroom may continue to fruit for many years in the same spot, continuing to feed on the root mass even after the tree has died and fallen.  One upshot of this is that if you find one tree with honeys, you may well find more in the neighborhood.

For more information check out the following resources: Wildman Steve BrillWikipedia, or Mushroom Expert.
Cluster of honey mushrooms (note ring on stem and
 dark fibers on the center of the cap).

Monday, September 12, 2011

Old Man of the Woods (Strobilomyces floccopus)

Season: Summer through fall.
Edibility: Nope.
Defining characteristics: A medium to large bolete (2-6 inches across) with black spiky scales on its cap.  The pore surface starts off lightly colored, but darkens to near black with age.  The flesh is white but bruises pinkish-red when first cut and then slowly turns to black.

Old Man of the Woods
I find the Old Man fairly frequently here in Rhode Island once the prime mushroom season starts (mid-August).  It often appears to be solitary, but if you look around there may well be a group of them hiding nearby.  You are not likely to confuse this mushroom with much else, and it is one of the most striking and beautiful mushrooms if you find a fresh specimen in my opinion.

Unfortunately it is not supposed to taste good- one reference says that it starts off tasting bad, and gets worse.  I have included it here as it is an easy mushroom to ID, and something you will probably find on foraging trips in the area.