News Feature

Originally published in Castine Patriot, October 3, 2013
Wild mushrooms can be tasty to eat—with caution

Tom Seymour gives a talk on wild mushrooms at Witherle Memorial Library

Author and forager Tom Seymour displays a chanterelle at a talk on wild mushrooms at Witherle Memorial Library on September 24. “Mushrooms are where you find them,” he said.

Photo by Anne Berleant Order prints of selected PBP photos.

by Anne Berleant

Tom Seymour, who describes himself as “primarily a forager,” shared his knowledge of hunting and identifying wild mushrooms at a talk at Witherle Memorial Library on September 24.

“I use wild, edible plants in my life on an everyday basis,” he said.

Seymour is also a naturalist, film writer and author, who penned Wild Plants of Maine: A Useful Guide, published in 2010.

He said there are hundreds of such books, but when identifying wild mushrooms to place on the dinner table, the quality of photographs or illustrations is critical, as is a spore print table.

“Identification is of the utmost importance,” he said. “You have to positively identify every mushroom.”

The first step is to match a wild mushroom with a picture. Then, make a spore print by placing the mushroom—cap-side up, spore-side down—on a piece of paper and place a glass or jar over it. The spores fall to the paper and can be identified by their color and size. Choose your paper to contrast with the color of the mushroom’s gills.

For safety, never rub your eyes after touching mushrooms, and don’t mix unknown mushrooms in a basket with other, known specimens, Seymour said.

“You just get one chance with a deadly, toxic mushroom. You can’t be too careful.”

That said, foraging for wild mushrooms can be as easy as spotting a puffball in your neighbor’s yard.

Puffballs, one of the more common wild mushroom varieties, are “different from other mushrooms in that they’re entirely enclosed,” Seymour said. “They have a musty, woodsy, vegetative smell.”

To test a puffball variety, slice it in half “longitudinally.” If it’s pure white inside like cheddar cheese, it’s fine,” he said.

Some puffballs, like the calvatia gigantea, “get as big as a bread box,” he said. “Slice them like steak,” and sauté them.

Mushrooms can be frozen for later use, Seymour said, by slicing and sautéing lightly, not until cooked, and then cooling. “Throw them in a container or plastic bag, freeze, and you’re all set.”

Chantarelles are a popular and well-known wild mushroom. While chanterelles don’t grow in clusters, they may be spread thickly over an area, “another identifying factor,” Seymour said.

Some mushrooms have good years and bad years, Seymour said. This has been a good year for “one of the more prized mushrooms,” the black trumpet, commonly known as the “death trumpet.”

“Isn’t that horrible to call one of the best mushrooms around?” he asked.

When sautéed, the black trumpet creates a “succulent, delicious black gravy.” Seymour serves his with jasmine rice.

Restaurants have been creating recipes for the black trumpet, he said. “Everyone’s gotten on the bandwagon.”

Black trumpets are found in the woods, “but they like the edges, where the sunshine dances.”

Seymour also displayed—in a slide show and with live specimens—hen-of-the-woods and chicken-of-the-woods, similar sounding wild mushrooms but quite different.

Hen-of-the-woods, or Grifola frondosa, grows on hardwood stumps. “Lots of time, you’ll be walking by an old stone fence and you’ll find one,” he said, because someone cut a tree near the fence. They grow in a cluster that can weigh 10 to 12 pounds.

A tidbit of history: Italians are so secretive as to where you find hen-in-the-woods mushrooms, that there are tales, Seymour said, of people who’ve been murdered over them.

Chicken-of-the-woods grow on “compromised” trees, stacked like shelves, and are bright orange with yellow around the edges.

“There’s nothing else that looks like it,” he said. Despite its name, the chicken-of-the-woods tastes, to him, like lobster.

There are hundreds of mushroom varieties, Seymour said, and he mainly sticks to the ones he knows.

“I don’t know every mushroom in the world,” he said, “and I don’t know anyone who does.”