When was the last time you’ve become excited to find something that was otherwise free for the taking? How long has it been since you’ve dirtied your hands combing through the ground? What was the last thing you’ve hunted that moved at a snails pace? How long have you posed in a Slav squat because your prey is so allusive you nearly have to be at eye level to notice its presence?
For myself it had been exactly 12,276 days. This was my first time searching, squinting, crawling, and clawing for the all too allusive Porcini Mushroom and as I was told, luck was on my side that day.
I’ve talked to Bradford Heap a few times before about inviting me the next time he went Mushroom hunting in the hills that surround Boulder Colorado. With the season being so wet and conditions overall for mushroom growth so superb, Bradford’s instincts didn’t have to work too hard to inform him that the time was nigh and mushrooms would be ripe for the picking. Fortunately he invited me along on the hunt with him that day.
On our drive to Bradford’s secret Mushroom hunting grounds (because that’s a thing among mushroom hunters apparently), we talked a bit, had a few laughs, but I noticed something unexpected arise. Passion. Pure unfiltered passion. Driving up a dirt road, mid-sentence from another story, he slams on the breaks, emits a genuine “Yahoo!”, and punches me on the shoulder in excitement as he exits the truck to run down the nearest hill. To my surprise when he emerged from the bush, he had somehow spotted a football sized Porcini growing in the distance. It was as though he had found a chunk of gold. But I suppose to a Chef… it was like gold. To stumble across a delicacy of this size while driving on the road only boded well for what was to come and you could visibly see the excitement grow in Bradford’s eyes.
Once we reached the fertile hunting grounds, Bradford taught me some of the basics of hunting Porcini Mushroom in the region. Porcini are mycorrhizal which basically mean the mushroom has a symbiotic relationship with the other roots and plants in the area, for instance Pine trees. The soil they prefer to grow in tends to be wet but not soaked. The necessary amount of available light from the sun could differ but mushrooms do need heat to grow and spread so they don’t do well in total darkness. Porcini mushrooms when exposed to the sun begin to tan and become a rusty brown on their caps. When it has not been exposed the color is a flat or dull white almost the color of a marshmallow.
Typically the stalk of the Porcini makes up the bulk of this edible mushroom. However when you find the football sized ones that Bradford kept hauling back… the caps are absolutely enormous in comparison to the stem. Almost comically so. The mushroom cap and stem are actually the fruit of a larger organism. So it is important when picking them that you do not harm the organism as a whole. In order to do this you want to pluck the mushroom as close to the root as possible. This means pushing down the surrounding soil, getting as close to the root as possible, gently plucking or cutting the mushroom out and than re-burying the exposed root.
Finally, in a good stewards fashion, when gathering mushrooms you want to collect and hold them in a basket or bag where the spores are free to fall through to the ground as you continue hiking around. In this way your helping to spread mushroom spores for future growth. If you collect/hold the mushroom in plastic bags or the like, the spores are not able to escape and spread any further. Which is both a harm to the ecosystem and future hunting prospects in that area.
However there are far more mushrooms growing under the ground for every one you may notice exposed on top of or protruding through the soil. The real trick to having a good harvest is to first find an exposed Porcini which in itself can be difficult. Once the fruit has been plucked and before reburying, see which ways the roots are spreading. If you search in those general directions typically other Porcinis are growing nearby.
The difficulty is noticing the slight bulges in the soil where underneath a mushroom is growing. There is little sign otherwise and at first it would seem imperceptible. But once you start to pay attention to the ways the soil naturally lays, you begin to notice these minute mounds forming. It was almost like staring at a magic eye, if you’ve ever done that. But as you stare blankly into the soil, it’s hard to explain, but you begin to notice the trees in the forest so to speak. These mounds begin to pop out where before you would never notice them.
Outside of choosing the right mushroom, it’s important to avoid picking harmful or dangerous mushrooms. A typical rule of thumb to go by is if under the cap is spongy, it’s likely safe to consume. If under the cap is ribbed or striped however, it is most likely poisonous. Now please don’t start hunting and cooking mushrooms based on that description alone. As every mushroom I collected I first passed by Bradford to ensure it was safe to eat.
After a full day of crawling around on the ground, inspecting fungi, we came away with a very bountiful harvest. Somewhere in the ballpark of 15-20 pounds worth of mushrooms had been collected and immediately Bradford began to plan out how he was going to prepare them. To see his excitement in their use was like watching a kid in a candy store. Amazingly, he wasn’t speaking of his excitement to eat them himself, but his excitement in serving them to his guests at his restaurants, and to his friends and family at home.
He told me that he had never seen a season like this before in Colorado, and that I was spoiled having this been my first time out. Not knowing any better myself I admit I believe him. Call it beginners luck if you will… but I believe luck is the residue of design. Bradford does have a special secret area he’s been collecting mushrooms from for years. He has a nose for them like a hound dog, and yearning for fresh ingredients like an artist does for inspiration. There was no luck evident that day in my opinion. Just a mans passion paying off. I was simply fortunate enough to be along for the ride.