I followed William “Dunk” Dunkerly and his friend Heather across a cow pasture, through two gates, and into a dark forest. We were hunting mushrooms on a cloudy September day.
Miles Smith Farm abuts another farm that was abandoned 100 years ago. The stone walls remain but they no longer define fields; they run along the floor of a full-grown forest. The pine needle and leaf-covered ground muffled the sound of our footsteps. The high canopy of pine, oak and hemlock trees protected us from the rain showers that could be heard but not felt. A drenching rain the night before created a musty smell that made me think of dinosaurs.
Dunk, owner of Dunk’s Mushrooms, raises domestic mushrooms and hunts the wild varieties. We both have booths at the Nashua Farmers Market and during a slow moment there, we planned this expedition. Our ancestors had foraged for mushrooms and I'd always wanted to try it – guided by an expert. Dunk is The Man.
Our first 40 minutes were unproductive. We did see lots of non-edible little brown mushrooms also called LBMs. We also found Cat's Tongue, which is slimy and gelatinous. It can be eaten but who'd want to?
We saw a lot of Destroying Angels, a beautiful white mushroom about 3 inches tall. "That one will kill you in a few days," said Dunk.
I knew enough to be wary of mushrooms but my fear increased when he added, "For most varieties that are non-toxic, there are look-alike twins that are toxic and will make you wish you hadn't eaten them.” Plucking a brown specimen from the forest floor, he took a tiny taste and added, “For instance, this variety is bitter which means it's the toxic twin." There are only about three varieties found in New England which will kill (Destroying Angels is one,) the rest will make you sick
Nervously following his lead, I took a nibble, tasted the bitterness, then quickly spit it out. He said, "Sometimes a taste test is the only way, other than with a spore print, that will tell you if the mushroom is toxic."
Figuring we'd find more mushrooms on soggier ground, we walked downhill to a swamp. We found some more Destroying Angels and some colorful-but-poisonous varieties.
On our way back to my farm, Dunk said, "Stop! Don't move. Look around. You are surrounded by mushrooms."
At first, all I saw were decomposing leaves and some rotting logs. Dunk pointed to my left foot, and then I saw them, hundreds of funnel-shaped Black Trumpet mushrooms. As we harvested them, one mushroom had an unusual resident – a tiny frog was sleeping inside it. Rather than kiss this little frog (I already had a handsome prince at home) I shook him out and plucked the mushroom.
I asked Dunk, "Does the Black Trumpet have a deadly counterpart?" Thankfully he said, "No."
That's the thing about wild mushrooms. A mistake can be fatal. When in doubt, don't pick it.
Done harvesting the Black Trumpets, I made a mental note of their location. Each variety has its season and this was the season for Black Trumpets. If I can get back to the patch in the next week or so, there will be more to pick.
Harvesting a mushroom is like picking an apple. If the root system of the mushroom plant is unharmed it will produce more “fruit.”
That night I sauteed some of the Trumpets and mixed them with a bowl of buttered noodles. The mushrooms added a delicate but flavorful taste. I dehydrated the rest in the oven and put the dried bits in a bag to enjoy with pork chops.
It's hard to describe what mushrooms add to a meal. But if a walk in the woods has a flavor, it's the taste of wild mushrooms.