It’s Time to Fall in Love with Fungi
Neither vegetable nor animal, fungi are in a class of their own, and their global popularity just won’t stop sprouting.
The world over, scientists, chefs, and foragers have found the fun in fungus and are seeking out wild varieties or learning to cultivate them for their benefits as food, supplements, and income. Foraging clubs, guides, and rules can get a novice started.
What exactly are mushrooms? The thousands of species in the fungal kingdom feed on other plants and start out as a network of fine filaments that cling together in a mass (mycelium). Eventually, under the right circumstances, it produces a fruiting body known as a mushroom. The mushroom produces spores that will drift away to germinate into new mycelia, thus starting the life cycle again.
History of Mushroom Consumption
Humanity has enjoyed the flavors, textures, and healing properties of mushrooms for millennia.
The first evidence of eating mushrooms was found in the excavation of an 18,700-year-old Paleolithic burial site in Northern Spain. The female remains had signs of mushroom consumption in her teeth.
In the Alps of Northern Italy, the frozen body of a hunter from 3300 BCE was found to have been carrying three types of fungi; one was likely used to start fires and another as a source of medicine. Many other sites, along with ancient figurines and drawings, have shown that edible mushrooms played a large role in ancient civilizations and ancient peoples in central America, Mexico, Siberia, Eurasia, and Algeria used hallucinogenic mushrooms in religious ceremonies. In fact, the Mayan culture described psychedelic fungi as “body and food of gods.”
Zoom forward to several hundred years ago. Little was known about mushrooms. The Eastern half of the world readily consumed them, while the West remained reluctant. The French introduced mushrooms into their haute cuisine in the 19th century, and the delicacies quickly spread over the world like melted butter. Soon after, Americans were cooking and feasting on mushrooms with fervid devotion. Groups dedicated to foraging, identifying, growing, and cooking fungi emerged and continue to this day.
Locally foraged mushrooms are now prized fare that can add joy to meals or provide cash when sold. There are festivals around the world such as the Muscoda, Wisconsin, Morel Mushroom Festival in the US; the Annual National Mushroom Festival in Islamabad, Pakistan; the Porcini Festival in Oriolo Romano, Italy; and Family Fungus Day in Lancashire, UK. Attendees to such events can typically sample cooked mushrooms and other foods made with mushrooms and learn about foraging for or growing mushrooms.
Correct identification of wild mushrooms cannot be learned overnight. It is recommended that novice mushroom foragers obtain at least one guidebook or app that includes detailed photos and descriptions to be certain a particular mushroom is edible. Better yet, join a local foraging club and head out with experts. There are thousands of species of fungi and many are quite similar. A good guide will classify them with details on properties that are unique to each species (shape, color, odor, habitat). Positive identification typically requires verification of multiple characteristics.
There is a Croatian proverb: “All mushrooms are edible; but some only once.” That is why one should never taste or eat raw or cooked mushrooms that cannot be 100% identified.
The consequences of making a wrong guess can be severe or even fatal. Several types of Amanita mushrooms are responsible for more than 90% of fatal wild-mushroom poisonings because they are similar to many edible mushrooms and grow in the same areas. They are common in the US and Eastern Europe.
Before foraging for mushrooms, be sure that local regulations allow it. Some areas are protected and removing too many (or any) mushrooms could result in a fine.
If mushrooms can be accurately identified and properly prepared (some are toxic when raw but edible when cooked), foraging and consuming can be a healthful family activity. Whether or not the hunt produces a bounty of mushrooms, the benefits of traipsing through the woods and exploring nature are well worth the effort.
Popular Mushrooms to Eat
Chanterelles are highly regarded wild mushrooms and their bright yellow and orange colors and distinctive trumpet shape make them easy to recognize. Chanterelles grow in mature forests and are commonly found in moist areas around maple, beech, poplar, birch, pine, fir, and oak trees in large clusters. In the kitchen, they can be used in a multitude of ways or simply sauteed with shallots or garlic for a tasty side dish.
Morels grow in deciduous woods in the spring and are easy to identify. There is one species that could cause potential confusion, but once true morels are identified, the deadly false morel is easy to spot. Morels are poisonous when raw, but have a rich, earthy flavor when cooked. They are delicious sliced and sauteed in butter to appreciate the tender flesh and nutty flavor. Fresh morels sell for $40 per pound or more and usually come from the US, Europe, or Turkey. Dried morels can be purchased year-round for about $20 per ounce.
Puffball mushrooms may be the easiest to identify, and they grow on the ground from spring to fall. The mushroom is almost round and may look like a white baseball or as big as a volleyball. The flesh is totally solid from one end to the other with no cap, stem, or hollow area. They can be used as most mushrooms, added to pizza or egg dishes, but, because of their size, they can be sliced and used like a pizza crust or sliced and fried like a steak. Some people bread and fry them like mozzarella sticks or chicken nuggets, and many compare them to tofu, as they take on the flavors of the food they are with.
Chicken of the woods
Chicken of the woods mushrooms are great for novice foragers as there really isn’t a look-alike. The bright yellow-orange clusters grow on freshly dead trees. As the name implies, they are a substitute for chicken in noodle soup or a stir fry and can be breaded and grilled like a chicken breast.
Cordyceps is not your typical mushroom; it is a parasitic fungus that grows on and consumes caterpillars. It has been used for hundreds of years in traditional Chinese medicine to treat ailments such as tuberculosis, jaundice, and erectile dysfunction. It has been shown to have anti-inflammatory and anticancer effects.
The fungus is believed to enhance oxygen utilization and increase blood flow, which may improve athletic performance. In 2003, during the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak, cordyceps was touted as a cure. Sales, and the price, exploded. Today, they can cost as much as $10,000 per pound.
Truffles can exceed more than $2,000 per pound because they are rare and difficult to harvest. Varieties of truffles grow underground in Italy, France, and the US Pacific Northwest. They take a long time to grow, and hunters typically use trained dogs or pigs to sniff them out.
Matsutake has been eaten in Japan for more than 1,000 years. Because of declining habitat, the mushrooms are considered endangered, and they have proven impossible to cultivate. This rarity has driven the price to $1,000 per pound or more. Because of their unique flavor profile, the mushroom is usually cooked simply. They might be skewered with oil and salt and broiled, thinly sliced into hot soups or steamed rice, or even eaten raw.
According to Medical News Today, all varieties of mushrooms contain about the same nutrients, and many mushroom varieties that are easy to cultivate are available at grocery stores and markets for reasonable prices. It’s simple to incorporate mushrooms into the diet by adding them to stir fries, omelets, and pizzas. Larger mushrooms, such as portobellos, can be grilled or stuffed and baked. Shiitake is another that has a meaty texture and is delicious simply sauteed in olive oil, butter, or broth and eaten as a side dish or blended in with other ingredients.
Finding mushrooms in the wild is a humbling experience as one begins to grasp the extraordinary diversity of the natural world.
Whether hunting for fungi to supplement the diet, to make a little money on the side, or just to get some great photos, wild mushrooms are some of the most fascinating and beautiful natural specimens to learn about. As scientists continue to study new varieties for which there is little information, they may discover many more nutritional and medicinal benefits from fascinating fungi.
*Julie Peterson is a freelance journalist based in the Midwest region of the US who has written hundreds of articles on natural approaches to health, environmental issues, and sustainable living.