With holiday music filling the air and shoppers rushing home with their treasures, it only makes sense my thoughts would turn to mushroom hunting.
As others sought out wrapping paper and turkey, I went down to our local bookstore and was delighted to find a huge selection of books on mushrooms.
Maybe this could be a New Year’s resolution kind of thing. Mushroom hunting is something I have wanted to be knowledgeable at for a long time now. Maybe 2013 will be the year I become wise in the ways of spores. Or maybe it will be the year I die a horrible death.
There is an old adage that goes, “There are old mushroom hunters and there are bold mushroom hunters; but there are no old, bold mushroom hunters.” I suppose if you were looking for a safe month to hunt wild mushrooms, you couldn’t do much better than this one.
You’d have to be a special kind of unlucky to die of mushroom poisoning in December. When I was small, my grandmother and I used to gather mushrooms from the same corner of her lawn year after year. She used them to make the best mushroom soup I have ever had. Summer weekends at Grandma’s place were always filled with gardening, picking berries or harvesting vegetables. In my mind, the wild mushroom patch was merely an extension of her garden and I never questioned how she knew they were safe to eat. I wish I had asked more questions.
Flipping through my recently acquired mushroom book, I suspect they were field mushrooms or for the Latin lovers Agaricus capestris. The only three mushrooms I can identify with any confidence are Shaggy Mane, Giant Puffball and Fly Agaric.
While Shaggy Mane and Giant Puffballs could never be described as pretty (except as in pretty delicious), the Fly Agaric is drop-dead gorgeous.
Its rich red cap flecked with white looks as if it stepped right out of a fairy tale. Unfortunately if you nibble on its drop-dead gorgeous flesh you will drop dead yourself. And if you don’t, you will wish you had. Mushroom poisoning is not pleasant. According to my book foolish people sometimes consider eating Fly Agaric hoping for a hallucinogenic holiday, but instead end up vacationing in the hospital. Or the morgue. Nothing about the trip this mushroom offers is pleasant. I don’t know which mushrooms are magic, but it isn’t this one! Apparently traditional medicine men used to attempt to dodge death and get a buzz by feeding this mushroom to their animals to remove some poison and then collecting and drinking the animal’s urine. Good grief. Fortunately for humans (not to mention poor Fido) we now have alcohol to turn to for our liquid poison needs.
My own interest is strictly culinary. I want to recreate my grandmother’s incredible mushroom soup. But I don’t want to die in the process. And so I have been studying my book of mushrooms, learning about taking spore prints and how to spot poisonous posers. The more I read, the more fascinated I became until I finally set the book down and looked out at the snow covered landscape in frustration. It would be a good five months and probably more before I could even think of putting my newfound knowledge to the test. I got up and went to throw another log on the fire, passing by my plant stand on my way.
I have been growing my own winter greens and herbs; baby kale, spinach, arugula, tom thumb lettuce, mesclun mix, dill, sage, basil, rosemary, peppermint and parsley. As I walked past I gave the greenery an appreciative glance and something in the wee dill patch caught my eye. A mushroom! I had scooped the compost for the plant boxes from my own garden this fall and it must have contained a spore.
It was only a single mushroom and barely big enough to make a serving of soup for a gnat, but there it was. A mushroom for the hunting! A mushroom in December! A flurry of enthusiastic study ensued but before I could positively identify it the mushroom, well, the mushroom died. How ironic is that? Before it succumbed I took its picture both as proof of my December mushroom and in the hopes someone can help me identify it. If there isn’t room for it in the paper (and if you don’t see it that means there wasn’t!) and you think you might be able to help, check it out on my website. Shannon McKinnon is a humour columnist from Northern BC. You can catch up on past columns by visiting www.shannonmckinnon.com