What a fall it is!

Part 2: Back in the City:

I woke up Monday after my weekend in Wisconsin and groaned. We live in Chicago, in a very urban and working- class part of the city, and as soon as my eyes opened I remembered I was no longer in Wisconsin. I was no longer free to idle my days (even though it was basically one full day) my day exploring new spots. I have one full day a week to forage product for sales to restaurants, and that’s Monday.

I dropped my sweetie at her work, and headed to a spot I’ve been hitting since I was 19 years old. I walked into a mowed savanna, note that I’d not been out in my spots for two weeks thanks to the afore mentioned chigger crisis, and almost immediately found my first Maitake. That’s never a good sign. There’s nothing like seeing the first obvious one, and never finding another. But that wasn’t the case, half the trees that hit in that savanna had fully ripe, open fronded Hen of the Woods. I got there at 9:00 AM and by 9:20 had to empty the one large, flat bottom bag I brought. Out of the Jeep came the second and the empty first.

By 11:00 AM I unloaded again.

The entire woods usually takes two and a half hours to walk. I spent two hours in the easy part. I was taking photos of every Maitake I harvested, but that wouldn’t last too long. I moved the Jeep closer to another area of the 160 acre woods, that would take a little hiking with full bags, and jumped out to find nothing for a full fifteen minutes. But then I suddenly had 35 pound bags on each shoulder, I had to drop back at the Jeep, regardless of what I missed.Then it was time to hit my favorite part of the woods.

This particular part is not well traveled, and has Oaks over 150 years old. Almost all produce Hen of the Woods, but to get there from where I parked I have to walk through a hard and barren area where the Honey Fungus has killed off over an acre of trees. All of them had been stripped of their bark several years ago, all had been producing with diminishing returns and I expected none to be fruiting, all were. Damn. Had to walk back with another 40 pounds! 

I got to my favorite spot, where in 2007 I harvested an 85 pound Hen of the Woods from a dead Oak, 30 inches tall, and 24 inches wide. I had had to walk back to my truck to pick up burlap coffee sacks and cut the mushroom down the middle to carry it out in two pieces! Some of the Oak trees in this area of the woods are 8 to 10 foot around, the branches massive.

Two weeks back when I was last out hunting Maitake here, I made a visit to my favorite tree; a tree that usually gifts me four to eight Hens each year, only to see that the storm a few days before had torn it’s crown off, only one branch remains. I audibly cried out and put my hands on that tree.

My old friend hadn’t produce Hens this year, but so many of it’s neighbors had that I had to again empty my bags, and I moved the Jeep once again, closer to where I was hunting. I noticed someone walking their dog, I wondered if he’d heard me talking to the Oaks, thanking them for the harvest as I always do. Thinking it might help him see I was not a crazy person I chatted with him and told him I was a mushroom hunter, showed him a nice 3 pound Maitake, and that if he sees one he should take it and eat it. Not sure if he thought I was more or less crazy then when he’d heard me talking to the trees, but at least he humored me.

By 11:00 AM I was texting with a Chef and customer whose company and conversation I enjoy and agreed to take him out that afternoon at 2:00 PM. I called all picking off at 1:20 so I could get back to the Jeep and travel to meet him for a foray. It’s amazingly hard to stop harvesting such wonderful gifts from my friends the Oak trees. I hit the trail. No stopping to to check trees even if they were only a few feet off the trail but found several more anyway. At some point the bags got heavy enough that I had to put blinders on. . By the time I was back at the Jeep I had harvested 145 pound of Maitake, and it was only 1:40 PM.

I raced north to meet my friend and en route asked a fellow forager to meet him. I was only a half hour late, ecstatic, and when I showed them my harvest so were they. The spot I picked was also a spot I’ve been hunting for over ten years, another Oak Savanna, bordered by a slight ridge (very slight compared to what I’d just been hiking in Wisconsin) with old Oaks. We walked the small Savanna and found one perfect Hen, and moved on to the next spot half a mile away.

On the way I noticed a half dozen puffballs fruiting and pulled over. They were confused why I stopped until I asked if they had seen them. We walked a block back through the woods and found the site, seven were too old to harvest, but one three pounder was perfect. The Chef got that one.

We got to the next spot and walked a woods that has done wonders for my mental health. During my worst times I would take an hour to just walk through, noticing, noting, and acknowledging the wildlife, the trees especially. There is nothing like a 200 year old tree to put the previous three months into perspective.

The previous year my sweety had found a standing Oak that was flush with a Leatiporus, not sulphureus, but the marshmallow yellow pored chicken of the woods, It thinks it’s cincinnatus, and never gets hard. I’ve heard that it’s recently been ID’d as a new species, Last year the trunk collapsed, but I harvested it twice during the late fall. I announced to the guys that up ahead there’s a stump, it’s not mine, it’s hers if there’s Chicken on it. Quickly we came across it and the guys respected that, and I got to take my sweetie several pounds of really good marshmallowy Chicken of the Woods.

We rounded out that set of small woods, about 20 acres of Oaks and Maples and went just east and I agreed, even though I had had more than enough, since I’d been hauling mushrooms since 9:00 AM and it was 5:00 PM) I agreed to run one small Oak savanna with them that usually produces. We stopped on the way there to harvest some really nice yellow crab apples. The savanna didn’t yield much, and the guys went off into the deep Oak forest. Like any good foray leader, I followed them. The end of the story is that I managed about ten more pound of really nice marshmallow Chicken and a few pounds of Sulphureus, and a dozen Hen of the woods, all averaging one to two pounds, and my buddies did likewise.

I didn’t get home until about 8:00 PM, but I had a total haul of about 170 pounds of mushrooms. The other foragers I work with found about 70 or 80 each. I gave twenty away, and we sold out on Tuesday. Wednesday was for me, a light day. Just 29 pounds of maitake, 65 from a friend on Tuesday, and the other two harvested about 50 more. We sold out again on Wednesday! We then harvested from our greenhouse on Thursday and, sold out of all out wild mushrooms, with a few orders to fill for Friday. I went far south and wound up with about 60 pounds, one coworker with 35, and we sold out again.

Today was a foray for educational purposes, led by me, and only a few people showed up, but it was a fun time and my eight year- old son and I managed to harvest 55 pounds in an hour and a half.

All told we sold about 400 hundred pounds of wild mushrooms this past week, and we’re seriously considering that we can improve that to about 550 pounds, all harvested by the three of us, all fresh, and all truly wild.

Want to be a part of it? I’ll see you in the woods.

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Wisconsin Driftless Region Fall Foraging and Relaxation

Hen of the Woods were late this year, I found my first on the 18th of August, and nothing edible until last Saturday under a young Maple in Wyalusing State Park in Wisconsin – a long way to go for a Hen, I know – allow me to explain.

It was the middle of the week, I’d been down for a few days the week before with worst case of chigger bites I hope to ever have. Twenty bites per square inch gotten harvesting sassafras root several days previous, and missed the weekend before’s foraging as a result. Someone said Wisconsin and my sweetheart, and I decided immediately to take a weekend off and head to Prairie du Chein, Wisconsin.

I’ve been enamored with the Driftless Region for the last 18 years, initially getting a taste on a camping trip to Wyalusing State Park with my then wife’s parents. After that my young family headed out every weekend from our home in Madison. We’d center our trip at the Bluff Camping Sites in Wyalusing at the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers, and run to McGregor, Iowa to rent a small boat to explore the channel islands. I remember meeting what had to be a 400 year old Maple tree on one of the islands. When I stretched my arms around I couldn’t even feel the curve of the tree it was so massive.

Since I’d been distracted by pain and icthing for a week, it was a poor early Hen of the Wood/Maitake season for me. My friend Nick Treondle, founder and organizer of the Iowa Morel Festival, suggested we come up his way. He was hitting them heavy up there we decided that’s where we needed to be. Still recovering from “the Great Chiggering of ’14,” camping was not an option. A traditional Wisconsin Tavern Hotel was just what we needed for a few days.

Just north of Prairie du Chien is the Spring Lake Inn. They don’t take credit cards, so when you reserve a room it’s an over- the- phone handshake. Founded in the early 1960s it still has real style. The currnet owners, John and Dena Schneeberger, were regular customers as in love with place as they were with the morel hunting and fishing of the channel islands. They traveled two and a half hours from Clinton, Iowa a couple times a year to the Inn.

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Spring Lake Inn You’ll never see the parking lot that isn’t completely full

 

 

When it went up for sale from the previous owners who had the place for 19 years, they snapped it up. They had little choice to move away family and friends; they were buying a place they loved and a piece of Wisconsin history.

We left Chicago at 3:00 pm, and hightailed it north through the city with surprisingly good traffic. Within two hours we were passing south of Madison, Wisconsin. We got up to the Spring Lake Inn just after 7:00 PM driving one of the most scenic drives in Wisconsin, barring the Kickapoo River Valley (more on the drive home later). The place was packed, we were lucky to get the bar manager Ashley’s attention. The bar takes a wonderfully modest amount of your cashand gives you the key for the room.

There was a scene right out of a Monty Python skit when we first ordered our cocktails, I ordered a Highball, a cocktail that is traditionally a shot of bourbon and a dash of bitter on the rocks with ginger ale. Ashley looked at me and said, “What do you want in it?” The problem is that a highball is also a glass size. I said a Highball, and she looked at me and said, “I heard you, what would you like in it.” I turned to her again and said a Highball, and frustratedly she insisted that I actually have something in my Highball glass. My sweety interjected and saved the day by ordering us two Brandy Old Fashioned, the traditional 1960s Wisconsin fishing cocktail.

After one sip I realized why Wisconsin consumes the most Angostura Aromatic Bitters per capita of any US state. We were served this generous and truly amazing cocktail. I’ll try to get their recipe, because after one or two you’ll wish for a bass boat, the Scripto clear plastic lighter from 1965 replete with fishing fly, and of course a “fly” hat.

After one cocktail, and paying for the room for two days, we retired to Room #1 for an hour to let the crowd thin out and get a table in the dining room. When we got back we got seated within 10 minutes, a couple complimentary cocktails in our hands, and both ordered the Fish Fry, which is so regionally known that we saw license plates from Minnesota, Illinois, Missouri and Iowa. The dining room is replete with taxidermy deer, dried mushrooms, paintings of local landscapes, and crowded with everyone from hunters to golfers.

The relish tray that comes with every order came with a little smoked whitefish dipper that was amazing. The fried cod was absolutely perfect, even the seconds that I managed to get down. Each piece was flaky and perfectly cooked, the tartar sauce could have used a little oomph, but the slaw more than made up for it.

I peeked into the kitchen, essentially a 10 by 15 foot addition to the original tavern, and it was crowded with harried cooks diligently working to serve 200+ plates a night. I’m not sure where they get such dedicated and attractive youth . Maybe that is just how they grow them up there in Wisconsin, but they’ve figured out a system that’s near perfection.

In true Wisconsin Tavern Tradition the bar cleared out at about 10:30 pm, almost in a flash, and we were the last two still dining. The next morning we woke excitedly in our clean, paneled room, ready to get out and hit the trails. The one thing about Wisconsin Tavern Motels is they don’t serve breakfast, and I wouldn’t want them to. 

We drove south to Prairie (the locals lost the du Chein ending years ago) to the local pancake restaurant for a large breakfast and a 19 year year old waitress training to be surly. As soon as breakfast was over we hightailed it out of there to pay our $10.00 out-of-state plate WI State Park badge. Any Hen of the Woods hunter wants older Oak trees, and we drove the Homestead Campground Loop to see if there were trees of the right age, as it’s been about eight years since I’d camped there so I didn’t recall. There aren’t.

We went up to the Overlook, just to the south of the Wisconsin Ridge campsites. It is on a bluff about 400 feet above the Mississippi. You see Prairie du Chien and the Wisconsin River, the almost 2 mile wide Mississippi River, and the bluffs at Pike’s Peak State Park in Iowa. At dusk Bald Eagles perform aerobatics for you, diving in and out of the tree line, swooping and soaring for the audience directly in front of the outlook. One of my fondest memories of that bluff camping site is sitting in the dark, late at night, watching the train run alongside the single track on the Iowa side. The single light on the engine spinning, lighting the trees, with no other lights to be seen but the occasional barge. Sound carries well on across water on a humid summer night, and you can hear each wheel slightly as it clicks and clacks.

The Overlook at Wyalusing State Park
The Overlook at Wyalusing State Park

We walked the Oaks near the Point outlook, walking the 3/4 mile to another view point called the Knob. Dropping down to the Old Wagon Road Trail; I am in disbelief that someone could or would drag a wagon up the steep trails, within 200 yards of the trailhead we found our first Hens, three four pounders around a 30 year old Maple Tree. Certainly odd, but not the oddest flora or fauna that we’d find that weekend.

After scouring the surrounding hillsides for more mushrooms (there hadn’t been significant rain for five days) and only finding a few small puffballs, and suffering from trail fatigue we decided to move up to the ridgeline and work the trees there. We went into the campground ring and moved off the road, we saw many Coprinus comatus we couldn’t harvest because we couldn’t cool or cook, and saw much black staining polypore, and a few older Hen of the Woods. On the way out of Wyalusing we stopped at the old park office, now a WPA Memorial. This State Park, like so many others had its first trails and campgrounds built by unemployed workers during the great depression by WPA Workers, and in those old Oaks we found a few ten pound Hen of the Woods that had fruited several weeks before and one large Black- Staining Polypore also well beyond it’s prime. The few wild grapes I found had either fruited long before or had not fruited at all that year.

This log had four identified species fruiting from it!
This log had four identified species fruiting from it!

On the way out of the park we decided to drive to the canoe launch in the channel islands, and stopped at a long closed road running through the park. After a few minutes walking we found resinous polypore, ringed honey mushroom, and a Hericium of about a quarter pound, all within 10 feet of each other. We harvested what we could and suffered the stings of the last of the year’s nettles.

We drove on, knowing that the Hens were clucking, headed to Iowa and better rain reports. We drove to the Yellow River State Forest, only the Mississippi side, and saw that it was all third or fourth growth trees, too young to bother having a serious foray in. We drove back down past Marquette to McGregor and had a quick lunch at the Old Man River Brewery. Unfortunately either they don’t actually brew beer, or are constantly out, I had to suffer an import from Indiana. The sandwiches were fine Sysco fare and we joked whether they had bought Sysco Brewpub Package #3 or Package #4. 

McGregor is an artsy community that reminds me of Nashville, Indiana; lots of middle aged motorcyclists with their “Old Ladies” antiquing. The one thing that stuck out is that the table of two families, about 10 people all together gasped and stopped speaking. We turned to the window to see a black biker dude and his woman stopping and getting off their Harley to come in. They were sat at a table by us, they were in their late fifties or early sixties. When the man went to the bathroom and soon came out all conversation in the restaurant went silent for a full 30 seconds, and when he walked to the TV by the bar to watch a few plays of the football game showing a few fine gentlemen stood up next to him. His wife sat stoically and looked at no one and nothing. This dude came up here because he was part of a middle class biker people, and they denied him to his face.

It was telling, even in this Northern Iowa River Town the haunts of The State of Mississippi aren’t far removed.

After lunch we decided to travel a few miles south to Pikes Peak State Park to see that biome. We parked and walked to the ranger station, directly behind the station was a stand of Oaks, one of which had the prettiest 2 pound Maitake growing from the root ball. On the other side of the Ranger Station was a wedding, the wedding my buddy Nick was working the sound system for, and the reason I wasn’t hunting the Hens with him that day. I’d forgotten my phone in the car and headed back, only to hear two folks with mushroom sticks speaking about how many mushrooms they’d find. I unsnapped my mushroom knife and signaled to my partner that I’d be cutting that Maitake in a crowd, and smiled.

We headed to Bridal Veil Falls and walked off the trail, just to the East of the ranger station quickly finding a few small Hens and several L. ochrepurpurea, and three or four Lepista nuda. We headed back to the trail and hit the stairs, only to go off again just after the falls and took the hard way up the hillside stopping to take a few pounds of Lycoperdon puffballs off of well dead Oak Trees. After losing my footing on the steep hillside I hopped rocks to the Hickory Ridge Trail, we then continued past the mowed ridge. We sat for a few minutes, gathering our wits and out location, finally zeroing in on the bluffs two miles away that, somewhere in the thick of the greenery, contained the Wyalusing Overlook we had been standing at hours before.

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On our way back we met a young mother and daughter that were taking pictures of the bluffs across the river and pointed out to them where Wyalusing State Park was far across the Mississippi, the mother had spent much of the youthful summers there. We showed them our mushroom finds and discussed them, she was familiar with the medical benefits of Maitake, and was excited about the easy finds of the small puffballs. As we were leaving her daughter, of 7 or 8 years old excitedly told us about deer that insisted on coming up to passer-byes and were friendly. We rounded back to head off the other side of Hickory Ridge Trail, and went into the tree line and found a few Hens, some Blewits, a few more puffballs, and some Russula emetica, and some unidentified mushrooms we didn’t harvest.

He loved the human touch and to have his one antler tugged on.
He loved the human touch and to have his one antler tugged on.

After recrossing a trail and finding a few more small Maitake I heard my sweety calling my name softly, it took me a few seconds to twig onto my own name deep into the woods. I looked and zeroed in on her, and there, not ten foot away was a two year old buck. He was slowly coming toward her. Heroically I briskly strode over, confident and armed with my seven-inch blade mushroom knife that I would save my sweetie . He came closer. she was worried that he was rabid, his brain addled. I then did what any good man would do and pulled out my Pentax Camera and focused for a close-in shot.

As I came closer, flash causing squinting eyes for my foraging friend, and the young buck not noticing, he slowly came toward me. When his antler was directly below my waist, aimed toward my most sensitive area, I grabbed his one antler. He shook his head back and forth, so I shook his one antler. This deer wasn’t deranged, he was tame! I swatted his face to kill the dozens of mosquitoes under each eye, and shook his antler again. We scratched his face and head, shook his antlers and rubbed his back. we eventually continued on, I harvested a 10 pound Hen of the Woods, pure white and super clean. We walked up the ridge and found a large tree that was covered with Resinous Polypore and we scored a great Hericium. 

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If you don’t know the amazing and misunderstood resinous polypore you’re missing out on a serious delicious beef flavored polypore that makes its own gravy. When I first tried the young Brown with white margin shelf fungus and trimmed the soft white edges last year I was amazed how nice this underrated polypore was. I would put this as one of first choice edibles, when I can harvest it in quantity. We managed several pounds of both margins and young brackets, Along the way we noticed a different Hericium, H. Calloides, the goats beard mushroom. We were happy harvest about a quart of that. 

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We noticed the young buck shadowing us, following at about twenty foot, and every time we stopped to harvest a mushroom or investigate a tree it would walk right up to us. After a few hundred yards of ignoring it, and several forced petting sessions during which we noticed that its left front leg had an obvious but healed break, and it appeared that the right front antler had been surgically altered. We wondered if he had broken a leg and been patched up somewhere, and during that stay became tame and used to humans. In an effort to ensure that no deer hunter worth his salt would take the easy kill, it seemed someone may have altered the pedicel so only one antler would grow fully and therefore there would be no prize buck, hopefully saving this almost pet its life. All speculation—but it did explain this young buck’s desire for human companionship.

As we went along ignoring the beast it slowly drifted to other hikers, and when we were done with our foraging and headed back to the trail we noticed it playing with a large dog and its masters. More hikers came to watch and the dogs owners shipped off embarrassed that they had broken some rule of the forest. That damned buck came right up to a crowd of eight of us and demanded to be petted and rubbed. All of the males, probably avid hunters in-season, obliged.

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We were pretty happy with our haul, as not many Hericium species fruit regularly in the Chicago area and we had two good for several meals, ten or fifteen pounds of Maitake, and a handful of other mushrooms to fill one very large 154 Quart cooler.

As we crossed the 1.6 mile long bridge over the Mississippi we noticed the sun setting at our back, and we knew we’d miss the great show at the lookout at Wyalusing State Park. But we were exhausted after our several state park mushroom run, and tomorrow would be another day. We hauled back to our motel room and when we got there the rest of the six rooms were obviously sold out to folks with Bass Boats for Sunday’s contest.

We hit the Spring Lake Inn restaurant as soon as the crowd died down, walking across the street. As soon as we ordered their Prime Rib Saturday Special the waitress apologized as we witnessed the last Prime Rib leave the kitchen. I ordered the strip steak, and obviously the kitchen was out, and they cut their own steaks, because a few minutes later a whole loin was carried through the dining room to cut my steak fresh. It was a fine meal, again. The cocktails just as tasty. We were again the last people in the restaurant, it was totally clear by 10 PM. Dena Schneebeger says they served 450 plates that weekend, and that doesn’t include the folks who only came for the cocktails.

We were in no hurry to get home Sunday, after a weekend of hard hiking we decided to let ourselves sleep in. I was amazed when I woke at 6:00 AM and peeked out the window that all of the pick-up trucks with bass boats behind, had left without waking us. Common consideration is not dead in Western Wisconsin. When we did wake finally we hustled out of the hotel, eager to meet Nick Treondle and his lady friend for an early lunch and a few hours of harvesting. After touring the old town and stopping at a farmers market for fresh cranberries, shelled hickory nuts, pickled beets and sorghum syrup we headed to a Irish Bar in a town founded by the Quebecois Voyagers, and lost to the British in the war of 1812. 

Nick Treondle

Nick’s family is from the Sand Counties of Northern Wisconsin, once owning 4,000 acres a National Park took much of it over a generation ago. Nick now works as the Entertainment Director Josie’s River Queen. For years he’s been one of the premier morel hunter in the area, offering guided morel forays, and organizing the Iowa Morel Festival. His knowledge of the hills and ridges of one of the only places in the upper Midwest to not be ground down by glaciers is extensive. His easy smile belies his rough demeanor, his out- going attitude covers for someone who is sensitive to the land he forages on. His desire to get more people into the woods, not just for morels, but for summer and fall mushroom season shines through as he eagerly tells you where and how to hunt each fall mushroom you mention.

During the 2014 Iowa Morel Festival in McGregor, Iowa, Nick insisted that they have a “Children’s Foray” lead by a Professional Morel Hunter. Nick ensured that all of the dozens of kids got a hands- on education, and that each one walked away with knowledge that they may not have readily gotten as the tradition of family Morel Hunting slowly dies out, all while also booking heavy metal and rock and roll bands and closing streets in the town for the show and fest.

We were fortunate that Nick had been called into work to cover one of his charge’s shift. Frankly we were exhausted. As Chicago flatlanders, the steep ravines and challenging trails of the Driftless bluffs overlooking the Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers are beautiful but tough. I wouldn’t want to be a professional forager there! After lunch we were free to head back the long way, and run the northern route back to Madison. We managed to score some re-wilded Asian Pears, and stop at Heck’s Farmstand on US 14 West of Madison.

The last time I stopped at Heck’s Farmstand on Route 14 was 1998, my parents were visiting my then- wife and daughter and I in Madison Wisconsin and we and bought 100 pound sack of mixed local squash for $17.50.That was 16 years ago and I don’t think my parents were able to eat their fifty pounds; we split a bag and for years my father talked about the amazing squash varieties he had bred in the compost pile! Heck’s doesn’t have a website, and that’s kind of the place I like to visit.

I loved finding the same man behind the register with the same bad jokes and giving attitude. I told him the story of my late father and how, almost to the day he died, he spoke about the squash that interbred for years in that compost pile of his, and while I’m sure he didn’t remember us from our previous visit I’m positive that he understood every word I said. This time I only bought Carnival and Celebration squash, all sold within a week to restaurants back here in Chicago. We loaded up our goods, making room in the Jeep, and I lied to my friend and told her I had to run to the bathroom. Really it was to check the price on the Apple Cider in the cooler, it was about half what the large farmstand with the ponies and goats down the road charged. On top of that he made me a deal on three gallons. We’ve still got one left, saved for hard cider making.

We made it back to Chicago by 7:30 PM, our car full of squash, re-wilded Asian Pears, a very large cooler of mushrooms, wild nuts and assorted canned goods picked up along the way. We were happy to see our dog Ella, and she was happy to see us but when we sat down to recount our travels the one thing we wish we had was more time. Time to explore, Time to take an even slower route. Time to spend with distant friends, and time to have that one more Wisconsin Brandy Old Fashioned and one more piece of Deep Fried Cod at Spring Lake Inn.

Now we didn’t pay for our trip in mushrooms, but that wasn’t really the point. We managed to get out of the city, basically after work on a Friday and get to one of the most beautiful spots in the upper Midwest, meet some really great people who care about their community, and work very hard to save the traditions. We were able to meet an old, but not so close friend, and see what really makes him tick, and on top of that I was able to show my sweetie why I am so enamored with this amazing part of the country.

No place is perfect, I know that, but this is as near as I’ve seen in a long time.

For fall colors, mushroom hunting and just plain getting out of the city, a four hour drive will bring you to one of the finest parts of the country, with some great people and scenery that just doesn’t quit.

 

Foray tomorrow – Free educational foraging trip October 5th, 2014 10:00 AM

Hey all, it’s a little late and a little cold. We may have our first frost tonight.

I’ve been promising forays, and only come through on two this year. This is a kid friendly foray, bring the whole family out for an unforgettable experience!

We’ve been busy! This week we harvested over 400 pounds of Hen of the Woods mushrooms and sold them all to restaurants throughout the city!

We’ll be meeting at 10:00 AM at Meztisoy Market in Pilsen and caravan to a North Side Forest Preserve. Please be on time if you’d like to attend, there will be no meal, and no snacks, so bring a water bottle, some trail snacks, a plastic bag to take out trash you find, a paper bag for scientific collection for identification, and a knife and scissors.

Expect to spend no more than three hours in the woods and then a half hour ID session and debriefing.

Thanks, see you all tomorrow!

Call us at 773-217-4630 for more information!

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Dates for Fall Forays

Laetiporus cincinnatus (Photo Thomas Westgard)

(Photo Thomas Westgard)

We’re setting dates for fall forays, and will update as soon as we have dates and times:

Each session will include a light lunch and snacks. Bring a cooler or cooler bag to keep you mushrooms cool while traveling.

Either August 30 or 31 – Afternoon foraging for mushrooms and berries partnered with a liqueur making session at Meztisoy Market in Pilsen (the hold up is reserving the room for the evening session). Attendees will be able to take home fruit liqueur and sample last years. Beginner experience level – Chicago Area Far South.

Either September 13/14th Mushroom foray and wild medicinal plants (with Chris Mayor of Chicago Wilderness School) afterward a session on tincture making, Beginner skill level. Chicago Area North.

Either September 27th or 28th will be a mushrooms foray/wild plant foray with a cooking demonstration (wild food meal with bread baking?) and meal at Meztisoy. Beginner/intermediate skill level. Chicago Area TBA.

In early October we may have an overnight, camping in Brown County Indiana. This will be an all day Saturday foraging trip, Open fire cooking, the farm raises organic chickens, pigs and the location of our mushroom logs. It’s directly across the street from Yellow Wood State Forest and a 10 minute drive from Brown County State Forest in Nashville, Indiana. Bonfire Saturday night, camping, then Sunday we’ll breakfast together, and hit the woods again before lunch and cook a community lunch before heading back to Chicago. Intermediate/experienced skill level.

What’s Fruiting in the Upper Midwest, This Week!

All I have to say to you is to get to yout favorite woods immediately!

If you’re interested in old news, the Chicago Chanterelle harvest was at an all time low! We had such fantastic early rains, that just dried up for about four weeks, and then nothing after a four inch rain. My favorite spots got flooded and didn’t produce, none of them. During the drought time this year I manged about 12 small Chanterelles, and I managed a literal handful after the massive rain. Some friends in the far Western Suburbs did alright, as somehow more regular rain graced them with something to harvest.

Handful

Over the last two summers the Chicago region had no rain in July and it held off until the first week in August. But even during those years the Chanterelles flushed for a week or two, though in much lower quantities than usual.

My favorite Wild Blackberry spot had barely flowered this year, and when I came back to it two weeks ago there were no ripe berries. A friend stopped over there and told me that most of the ripe berries were already picked. I think a Friday trip to the spot, before the weekenders get them, is definitely in order!

The good news is that foraging for Wild Grapes and Elderberries might set a new record year! Last week I gathered about three pounds of Elderberries and sold them to the second restaurant I visited. Yesterday I went out to my spot and harvested about 10 pounds more, and on the way home noticed a wild grape that is slightly sweet and a little tart, with no tannin and only three seeds. The small grapes will make excellent sauces and an incredible wine. I’m actuallyhoping they don’t sell tomorrow and I can selfishly make some wild wine with them. I managed about 15 pounds before I decided I need to get a ladder to get the last ten pounds.

Wild Grape

There are many wild grapes, and grapes often interbreed into poor varieties, but when you come across a tart and sweet variety remember where it is.

This is a banner year for edible Crab Apples. My friend David Odd harvested about 15 pounds of wildized Dolgo Crab Apples last week. This week I found three trees, long forgotten about, with all sun side branches loaded. The Dolgo Apple which I’ve heard referred to as the Korean Crab Apple is light yellow interior with a tear drop elongated shape and if ripe has a light tartness, and almost ripe has a tart flavor great for sauces and jellies. It’s one of the few Crab Apples you can eat out of the hand.

When fully ripe this Crab Apple is sweet and crunchy, its elongated shape is a sure sign that you've found the right tree.

When fully ripe this Crab Apple is sweet and crunchy, its elongated shape is a sure sign that you’ve found the right tree.

This week, separately we both found a small round Crab Apple that has a bright pink interior that is tart without any sign of bitterness that will make a great apple sauce, jelly, or compliment as a savory sauce for a braised meat dish.

This small red Crab Apple has a pink interior and a tart finish. Be sure you pick only from trees without tannin, some look a likes will pucker your mouth.

This small red Crab Apple has a pink interior and a tart finish. Be sure you pick only from trees without tannin, some look a likes will pucker your mouth.

Last week we spotted about five pound of Letiporus sulphereus, the Chicken of the Woods Mushroom, all at its peak of freshness. She made a Vegan Lentil Pecan Chicken Salad that was simply amazing hot or cold! The difference in flavors, textures and color had me guessing that I was eating a fine meat dish.

Dawn Chicken 2Dawn Chicken 1

With the cool weather and rain in middle August, the Maitake are already fruiting, an 11 pound specimen was found in the woods just North of the City of Chicago this afternoon by David Odd of Odd Produce. The earliest I’ve ever found one is the last week of August.

This 11 Pound Specimen will be on dinner plates in one of Chicago's finest restaurants by Wednesday night. (Photo Dave Odd of Odd Produce, Chicago's Wild Food Supplier)

This 11 Pound Specimen will be on dinner plates in one of Chicago’s finest restaurants by Wednesday night.
(Photo Dave Odd of Odd Produce, Chicago’s Wild Food Supplier)

Last year was so dry until late September that Maitake didn’t really fruit until the first weeks of October, though with phenomenal results. With the average rains, though off the usual schedule I predict this early Maitake fruiting will be the usual 200 pound local harvest, as opposed to the bounteous year like last year. Ringed Honey Mushrooms are out in certain spots, and last week I found a few aborted Entolomas directly at the bark line of a dead tree – but not enough for a meal, surely most of the fall mushrooms are coming along very soon.

I’ll update in a few days as I head out to finish both the Wild Grape Harvest, and the Elderberry Harvest, while searching for Chicken Mushroom and very early Maitake.

Liqueur Time! Making Delicious Homemade Liqueurs is Easier Than You Think!

It’s been about four years since we our first Nocino. The Italian Walnut Liqueur is a staple for many families fall meals, used as an aperitif, or a digestif – served before or after a meal, and sometimes as a topping for iced cream, fall is when it’s most enjoyed, but we make enough to break a little out when we really want to wow guests.

Black Walnut stains, you, your tools and your clean up towels, but it's second to butternut!

Black Walnut stains, you, your tools and your clean up towels, but it’s second to butternut!

That first batch was terrible! It was bitter – we had added foraged Wild Quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), thinking for some reason that the addition would make a nice balance to the sweetness we’d add later. It was terrible, bitter, full of tannin from the walnuts and bitterness from the wild prairie plant.  I gave up on it after trying it, filtering it several times, and letting it age until fall. Nothing helped. A year later I had stripped an antique American Walnut table and was researching old fashioned, home made stains. My sweety mentioned that we had had made our own stain extracting the worst out of the black walnuts.

It was about 100 degrees, and I knelt on the grass to test the “Walnut Stain” on a piece of scrap wood, you couldn’t see sunlight through the bottle. The stain took well, but the sweet and nutty smell coming from the warm wood was too much. I looked at the bottle that had aged two years, I looked at the stain sample, and looked at the bottle again. I picked up the cork to smell, then I actually licked the cork – no tannin!

Slowly I put what I had been considering the bottle of walnut stain to my lips and took a tentative swallow. It was amazing, simply delicious, if anything it was too overpowering with the nut flavor. We had succeeded, though it took two years of aging. Frankly, this was one of the most amazing drink additives, mixers, or liqueurs I’d ever tried!

Last year we kind of went nuts (pun intended) making Nocino, Wild Blackberry, Elderflower, Elder Berry, Vanilla, Vanilla Pomegranate Liqueurs as well as Vodka infusions of Rosemary, and Cardamon (instead of Moscow, think Mumbai Mule!)

The Elderflower is simply amazing – a fruity, flower perfumed liqueur with hint of vanilla and slight notes of citrus, it’s too flavorful to drink more than a slight ounce on the rocks, or as a mix into a Left Bank, a Martini with white wine, Elderflower liqueur and a London Dry Gin.

The Elderberry Liqueur has an incredible flavor, powerful fruity flavor, almost like a Jolly Rancher – Elderberry flavor! Although nice as an aperitif, the best use was in a mixed drink, 2 ounces of good vodka and 1/2 ounce of liqueur on the rocks was lovely.

After investing in several cases of .375 liqueur bottles with which we could present our liqueurs while entertaining or as hostess gifts and Christmas presents we found that we couldn’t fill them all. Make no mistake, this won’t happen again.

Extraction of the essential flavors from nuts and flowers is startlingly simple, and as I found out, even ridiculous mistakes can be overcome with aging. Previous years we’ve used excellent vodka, cheap vodka, tried good rums, cheap tequila, and even mixed bourbon in the steeping. All our experiments worked out.

The cheapest vodka, with a horrible cleaning fluid smell (You know who you are Mr. Boston!) but ages down into a mellow and tame liqueur given enough time – the best vodka also makes a fine liqueur and had the additional benefit of not needing to be aged an extra six months.

Our local Elderberry bushes had already given up their flower petals, and we had all but given up for a batch this year. Yesterday afternoon, after giving up a last minute peach picking trip we settled on a trip to one of my favorite woodlands in Chicago for an foray to find early Chanterelles. While we found no Chanterelles we did find several previously unnoticed Elderberry bushes.  I pulled less than 1/4 from each bush, settling for a decent sized batch of Elderflower Liqueur, but the woods kept giving and we passed bush after bush in full flower.

My friend Jenny and I cleaned the flower from the poisonous and bitter stems, spending an hour or two carefully pulling only the petals. At some point Jenny came up with the idea of keeping the flowers – stems and all, in a plastic bag and giving them a good shake. After a few minutes she had double what we had pulled from hand and we quickly soaked out bounty in Everclear Grain alcohol.

Elderflower

After reading all winter about flavor extraction, earlier this spring we settled on the use of 195 proof grain alcohol. While there is supposedly no flavor the grain alcohol has a uniquely laboratory aftertaste, but the flavor extraction is said to be more pure and supposedly faster.

It’s been about 6 weeks since I started this post, and have come with the frustrating idea that we should have run our Everclear through a Brita type filter, some sand filter with activated charcoal to take the worst of the raw liquor flavors out – but this good news I managed to harvest over 10 pounds of Elderberries yesterday, some of which will go into an Elderberry Liqueur, and some will go to some of Chicago’s finest restaurants. Some of the bushes have double that amount ripening right now, but that’s another post!

Remember, only the darkest berries are ripe. I usually ignore the green, pick all the berries off the stem carefully, then drop them in a bowl of cool water, what floats gets tossed int eh compost pile!

Remember, only the darkest berries are ripe. I usually ignore the green, pick all the berries off the stem carefully, then drop them in a bowl of cool water, what floats gets tossed in the compost pile!

My sweetheart came home from a trip to her parents in New Palestine, Indiana this afternoon (about six weeks ago now) with Black Walnuts for Nocino, a bag of Butternuts and a bag of “Sweet” Hickory Nuts (as opposed to Pignut Hickory Nuts) and we spent the afternoon chopping and bottling our bounty. We’ve got four or five quarts of Black Walnut, two quarts of Hickory Nut and two quarts of Butternut as well as five quarts of Elderflower.

We’ve now cut the Elderflower Liqueur and added simple and some other very light spices, and poured off the Nocino, though we’ve not cut it or flavored it, we’ll wait for to age at 190 proof for a few more weeks, then add our Vanilla Everclear – my partner has a co-worker who travels to Western Africa each year to a family vanilla plantation, and of course, again, graced us with a half dozen very fresh vanilla beans. This year we decided to try making a Dry Vermouth out of the Black Walnuts. We’ve been steeping the alcohol infused walnuts in a decent Pinot Grigio in the refrigerator for three weeks, and Saturday we’ll pour it off and run through coffee filters and spice it up and add a little more alcohol to bring the proof up to about 18 24, and let the spices of their things.

We’ll also experiment with a small batch of Nocino, and use the Wine to bring the alcohol level down to about 80 proof, hoping that that will bring a different dimension to the entire process.

The Hickory and Butternuts are still steeping, waiting until we have an evening together to process. I’m sure that the solvent can’t take any more flavor out than it already has, so idling away beneath the sink shouldn’t hurt anything (Alright you purists, comment!)

We’ll be using straight vodka to make our Elderberry Liqueur, (Costco’s Kirkland brand is said to be a neutral vodka that doesn’t impart flavor at a great price) while this takes longer to pull the flavors out we don’t have to age as long, and a Jolly Rancher liqueur might be just what we need next month as the days grow shorter.

With the case of 12 – .750 liter bottles we’ll have about 34 quarts of 60 proof liqueur, the traditional strength.

Enjoy the encouragement, and whatever you do, don’t not do it!

Juneberry Wine Making

It’s never all about mushrooms!

We forage for all kinds of foods here at Chicago Mushroom Man, and today my sweetie and eight year old son took a short trip to the neighborhood Juneberry spot. You’ve got one in your neighborhood, some hospital landscape planting, a city park, some urban wood land that some smart restorer demanded a few Juneberry bushes be planted.

Juneberry Ripening

Mine is a a two block long stretch of urban parking lot, planted just off the sidewalk, with over 60 Juneberry “trees”. Three weeks ago they were just ripening, the top most berries on the racemes were just showing a little light purple color – then the heat came! Usually they fruit around the fourth of July, but suddenly the entire raceme was ripe! Last weekend was peak time for my little spot, they were incredible, the pie I made was almost too flavorful, it actually took four days to eat!

Today we harvested about five gallons, the three of us, the youngest, Spencer, seemed to be eating as much as he put in his bag, though he actually may have won in weight brought home.

We left home in the late afternoon, soon after a sudden sprinkle was over and as the heat of the day was diminishing, and tied boxes or bags around our necks and went to work. It took us each a few minutes to get going, adjusting, retying, getting comfortable, but when all is said and done we managed about 1 1/2 gallons each in under an hour. When you can pull a branch down directly over your box and strip juneberries with the other hand, or strip high branches with both hands it goes very fast!

Juneberries

we cleaned about 2/3 of the berries for later use in jams and baking IQF freezing some, and used the remainder, stems and all, to make a wine “must.” I actually added a fair amount of the cleaned berries to the “must” wasting a bit of work, but hopefully making a fuller wine.

Juneberries closeup frz

Essentially you crush your berries with a potato masher, pour a boiling simple syrup over them and let them sit overnight to cool, add yeast, then let work for a week or so – like bread baking – to make a really nice treat – there is ingrained knowledge one must develop, but the basics are simple.

We actually brought our must up to boiling tonight – the berries were actually getting a little old, so I wanted to kill off any bacteria and other hangers on as I could. Many recipes call for this for wild fruit wines, I think it’s because when picking wild fruit there is a wide range of age in the fruit that one picks, and unlike store bought fruit, that one can buy just barely ripe, a forager harvests what nature has ready. Often a mix of nearly ripe, ripe and very ripe fruit – tasting even five percent of what’s picked is a struggle (oh glorious struggle)! So being proactive is important when it comes to making wine.

Juneberry Must

Tomorrow we transfer the must into my primary fermenter (a food save 6.5 gallon bucket with lid with hole for the “bubbler”)  I’ll add just a little Sodium Metabisulphite – I need to kill off the yeast that is naturally occurring, as some of the Juneberries were quite ripe, and also add a little Pectic Enzyme, as Juneberries are very high in Pectin and Pectin locks up much of the flavor and sugars in the berries, making the job for the yeast a struggle.

In a day or so I’ll add a packet of Champagne Yeast, stirring every day with a sanitized spoon, and resealing, for about a week. Then I’ll transfer into a sanitized stock pot after squeezing out the berry skins, and clean and sanitize my primary fermenter. I’ll check the specific gravity, might add more water and sugar and a little more Champagne yeast, and let it do it’s business for a week or so.

After that I might “rack” into sterilized bottles, or do what we did last year, and ladle the raw wine right out of a bucket and drink a refreshing, Hillbilly wine as is.

Juneberries make a great, refreshing red wine, with the lovely almond/blueberry flavor that the Juneberry is known for. Using some brown sugar brings out a Sherry flavor.

Addendum: It’s two days later, left the “must” in a stock pot on the stove, and just poured it off, through a jelly bag, and into the primary fermenter. I was passing my local Brew and Grow store and picked up a couple packets of champagne yeast. Since I was there I picked up another hydrometer, since I emptied my office to convert into a mushroom lab, I’ve not found the one I’ve had a few years. I measured the specific gravity and if all the sugars were consumed by the yeast is was to come out about 16%. I like a little dryer, lower proof wine so I brought it down to about 13%.

I cleaned and sanitized the primary fermenter,

I cleaned and sanitized the bubbler and tools,

I them sanitized the jelly cloth, then poured the wine through, sprinkling yeast right on top.

Over the next week I’ll stir the must a few times, but really the process works itself out.

I prefer Champagne yeast to Shiraz or others because in my experience it’s more forgiving.

In early August we’ll host a foray for wild blackberries, partnered with a Wine Making 101 class.

The foray, as always, is served with a light lunch that focuses on wild foods, is $35.00 and limited to 12 people.

Basic wine making materials are less than $50.00, the class – with the yeast, fermenter, sugar, and chemicals should run about $90.00 – and you take your “must” home to ferment – and phone if there are questions, as well as a part two class.

In July we’ll be running a series of Chanterelles forays to location within one hour of Chicago. Call for details.

 

Hey all, it’s time to play Morel: Fact or Fiction!

Photo - Jinxie the Wonder Mongrel - Oakridge, OR

Photo – Jinxie the Wonder Mongrel – Oakridge, OR

Morel Season is just starting in the Chicago area, but being one of the more middling climates we Chicagoans get to spend a lot of time reading the Morel Forums. Most serious mushroom hunters and mycologists stay out of them after the first week, we just can’t stand more than a week of debunking “traditional knowledge” that has been passed on for the last 100 years and we give up.

This is a simple set of True or False questions to test your knowledge about the Morel Mushroom. While some of the answers will surprise you, science is science, and sometimes you’ve got to go against tradition. I look forward to the debunking of the debunking.

Morels Fruit in one night, “Popping Up” at the size that they’ll be.

True or False?

Morels pin like any other mushrooms, then begin to fruit and grow under the right conditions. They start small and grow for about two to three weeks. There are several time lapse videos that show quite well their growth. Folks who say things like, “if you’re quiet enough, on a dark night, you can hear ’em pop!” are full of more than mushrooms.

You must carry your morels in a mesh bag so they drop their spores, if you don’t “seed” your patch it’ll die out.

True or False?

Many folks carry mesh bags or baskets, and many mushrooms drop their spores after they’re cut and the gills dry slightly. But Morels are Ascomycetes and release their spores differently than most mushrooms. The release when they’re ready to release through asci, and especially in the case of young fruiting bodies, may not release at all.

Morels and are just the reproductive organ of the larger organism known as the mycelium. The mycelium may have been there for longer than your grandpappy’s been alive. To keep growing it just needs to continue exchanging nutrients for sugars with the root ball of the tree it’s partnered with. Morels can become saphrotic upon the death of the tree host, at that point the mycelium will quickly (over the next few years) use up all of the energy of the root ball, fruiting prolifically. That’s why you’re looking especially close under dead trees for that honey hole.

For the serious Morel hunter using handled paper bags or five gallon buckets protect your Morels from damage that they inflict on themselves grating against the mesh of the bag. One professional forager I know only uses buckets because he’s tramping through dense underbrush, another that hunts Morels 8 months a year uses a mesh bag. Let the arguing begin!

Morels grow wherever the spores land.

True or False?

There are over 19 species of Morels in the US, 14 of which have only been typed in the last five years or so. Different species of Morels have different mycorrhizal mutually symbiotic relationships with differing trees. Morels generally have distinct macroscopic properties that can be determined with careful examination if you take the time to use a key. Dropping the spores of a Morel that is associated with Cottonwood Trees at the base of a Fir Tree will do no good for the Fir, the Morel or anything else.

You need to look carefully everywhere for morels, they are sneaky bastards.

True or False?

Morels are sneaky bastards! Here’s Mushroom King Weipert finding them in a hole from a root ball. But that’s not all, pro hunters will tell you to move at a good clip, not wasting your time checking every tree. Look for the big “Flag” Morel, that one flag that signifies others are around. Find the flag and then slowly and carefully inspect all around it in a radius that grows each revolution. This is the time for careful consideration of every leaf under the tree, not every leaf in the forest.

Pulling your morels will kill your patch!

True or False

Alternatively cutting Morels will leave a butt to rot and kill your patch! You’ve got to pull so the mycelium breaks and “y’s” off making it stronger! Both methods are wrong! Errr, RIGHT! Pulling a mushroom does effect the mycelium, that’s right it yanks the tiny threads and rips them, and the theory that the mycelium “y’s” off and makes the network stronger has been shown as fact. Cutting you Morel, pinching it, and leaving a bit on the ground doesn’t effect the mycelium any more than not picking it at all, and might even be better than leaving a whole Morel to rot. If you go to 3.22 in the above video (time stamping isn’t working with this video for some reason) you’ll hear the host explaining one way or the other is the only way.

An ongoing study by the Oregon Mycological Society has shown that for Chanterelles at least pulling your mushrooms leads to higher yields, About 25% more mushrooms fruited from the beds that were yanked out, as opposed to the beds that were cut. I urge you to do your own real research, pull them babies and cut the butts in the field. Get back to me in 22 years and let me know how it’s turned out.

Use whatever method you’re most comfortable with, or what you’ve been taught. But remember to cut your butt stem so you don’t bring dirt into you bag, basket, bucket or whatever the hell you’re carry that 50 pounds of mushrooms out of the woods in.

Morels have no real nutritional value!

True or False?

morel nutrition factMorel Minerals ProteinMorel Carbs

Morels are actually a pretty healthy food. High in vitamin D, B complex, fiber, minerals, and relatively high in protein. You need to cook all mushrooms or you’ll get almost nothing out of them, the cells are made of “chitin” and not cellulose like most foods we eat. The chitin is strong and won’t release the nutrients without softening the walls by cooking. Since Morels contain a small amount of hydrazine it’s a good idea to cook that rocket fuel out of them anyway.

You know what, screw that nutritional information, both you and I know you’re going to throw them in a pound of butter. How ever you cook them you only get them for a few weeks a year, as long as you can buckle your belt when you’re done it’s all good!

You’ve got to soak your morels in salt water overnight, otherwise they’ll be too buggy?

True or False?

Folks do this to kill the bugs, but if you’re not slicing them you’re eating them bugs anyway, so give them a quick rinse if they’re a little dirty (which they wont be too dirty because you were careful and cut all the butt stems and any nasty parts off in the field, right?)

If you’re slicing them why bother soaking them, it robs them of flavor. Cut them and slap your knife down on the board as them little critters try to scamper away. You aim will get better the more time you miss and hit your grandmothers only heirloom table or cut you little ones fingers off – I guarantee!

Wet morels don’t bring as much money, no one wants a waterlogged piece of slimy trash that was once a Morel, and the fresh dry ones taste better, last longer and have more protein (you know, because the bugs are fresh!)

You can eat Morels in the field!

True or False?

You actually need to fully cook all wild mushrooms. Morels contain Hydrazine, a component in both rocket fuel and plastics manufacturing. It’s not good stuff, but fortunately cooks out quickly. You can do it, I’d bring an extra pair of panties.

You can eat False Morels, they’re great!

True or False?

Gyromitra

Well, from what I hear they are pretty tasty. The problem is the toxin in Gyromitra spp. builds up in your body and you’ll never know when you’ll get enough to get you violently ill, or for that matter enough that you cough up your kidneys and liver. Gyromitras, False Morels sometimes called “Reds,” “Beefsteaks,” or “Snowdrift Mushrooms” all contain Gyromitrin or specifically, N-methyl-N-formylhydrazine. (There’s that damned rocket fuel again!)

You’ll find many folks ID’ing Gyromitra as edible, often stating that they’ve been eating them for generations and “I ain’t dead yet!” Well that’s just frigging dandy, and it’s quite possible that they’ll never suffer any ill effects from Gyromitra, but it does cause 2 – 4% of mushroom fatalities. If you see someone telling folks incomplete information regarding this mushroom it’s your duty to tell the whole story.

Tom Volk, Mycologist at University of Wisconsin, La Crosse says, “Gyromitrin is a hemolytic toxin (i.e. it destroys red blood cells) in humans, other primates, and dogs. It is toxic to the central nervous system and damages the liver and gastrointestinal tract. It may act by interfering with transaminases, particularly those having a pyridoxal phosphate cofactor. Vitamin B6 is used in the treatment. As in cyclopeptide poisoning, a relatively long latent period ensues (6 to 12 hours) between ingestion and symptoms. The symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, cramps, distention, weakness, lassitude, and headache; if the condition is severe, these may develop into jaundice, convulsions, coma, and death. Methemoglobinuria and very low blood sugar are found in laboratory tests.”

But for all you folks whose uncle also happens to be their father who have been eating them for 30 years, please don’t listen to science, continue to eat them – we could always use more data points.

Morels are the only safe mushroom to hunt!

True or False?

80 pound Maitake

80 pound Maitake

If you think this one is true you’re missing a whole lot of fine mushrooms. When I’m out hunting Morels I’m also looking for Ramps and Nettles, as well as Dryads Saddle (P. sasqumosus) and Chicken of the Woods (L. sulphureus) and other early fruiting mushrooms. There’s a group of mushrooms called the “Foolproof Four” and I usually add two more to them for the Foolproof Four plus Two!

Learn these five additional mushrooms and you’ll never be without. Sometimes it’s just easier looking for a ten pound Hen of the Woods, or the bright orange Chicken of the Woods than it is finding a couple of dozen 1/4 ounce morels.

One more thing, remember to turn GIS on when using your camera, and post your photos of your honey hole widely!

Whatever you’re doing, have fun, eat well, and teach each other.

If you’re in the Midwest don’t forget to check out our Guide to Midwest Morel Festivals!

Special thanks go to L. Sulphureus, Oregon based professional forager and artist for prompting this post by asking for Morel Myths on his facebook page

Morel: Fact or Fiction Game!

Pasteurizing Substrate for Edible Garden Beds

I’m a bit behind in updating the blog, it’s been a busy couple of weeks…

We’ve done two home inoculation projects this spring, a small project a few weeks ago and a larger project yesterday, in addition to the 100 log inoculation in Brown County, Indiana – and of course attending the Brown County Morel Festival

Project #1

A few days before Easter the kids were over and I decided to test out an artificial grow log system. I had a little Stropharia spawn, a few cups of Shiitake spawn and a half a bag of Oyster spawn that was left over from the Brown County, Indiana inoculation project on Tom Westgard’s small scale farming operation. With my 17 year old daughter and 8 year old son we put up the two largest stockpots with water and began to bring them up to temperature. Once they hit around 170° f we added wood chips to one, and burlap sacks to another.

We brought the stew of wood chips up to temperature, kept between 160 and 180 for about an hour, drained and let cool. The burlap sacks were hung on the neighbors fence to cool and the chips were spread in a clean plastic tote to cool. Once cool we spread out one burlap bag and sprinkled two cups of wood chips and four of mixed ground and unground, fresh roasted coffee for the Oyster, and only wood chips for the Stropharia and the Shiitake. We then inoculated and rolled them tightly as we could and slid them into 4 inch HDPE drain tile and covered the ends and holes with Tyvek. I checked them yesterday and all show signs of mycelium running to the ends in the center.

Pasteurization is very different than sterilization: With pasteurization you’re attempting to bring down the level of contaminants, while leaving alive beneficial bacteria. Sterilization kills everything, and is quite useful, especially when you’re producing fresh spawn from spores or live culture plates, but unless you’ve got a clean room with laminar flow hood you’re only going to produce black mold. It’s important to remember that if you’re pasteurizing, don’t let your substrate come to a boil — without the beneficial bacteria and molds you’ll open yourself up to serious contamination. 

Project #2

I also had a bag of Pluerotus pulmonarius left from the Brown County project. With all living things you’ve got to use it — have it make mushrooms —  or give it more food by inoculating more substrate with it. Yesterday I ran three of the largest stock pots pasteurizing chips and burlap on the stove top. I made a complete mess of the kitchen with bags and wood chips everywhere, but when I was done cleanup took just 20 minutes. I drained the wood chips into another pot, and let the burlap to drip into that pot before I hung them back up on the fence in an attempt to conserve as much hot water as I could.

I laid the chips out on a clean plastic tarp to cool. I soaked some whole roasted coffee beans in the sugar syrup, it was actually 3 tablespoons of sugar to 1/2 gallon of water and 2 cups of whole beans. I added this nutrient rich whole bean directly into the wood chips.  If you can manage it the best time to inoculate the wood chips is when they just cool to about 80 degrees, the optimal incubation temperature for the spawn. If your chips are cooled to a lower temperature  inoculate and package. Wasting coffee on growing mushrooms might sound crazy but a local coffee roaster not only gives me their coffee sacks but also all of the fresh roasted ground and beans that they use in testing. It’s not for human consumption, but Oyster mushrooms love the energy packed into it.

Temperature for Pasteurization holding between 160° and 180° f.

Temperature for Pasteurization holding between 160° and 180° f.

Remember during the inoculation process you want to be sure to minimize the amount of time the pasteurized substrate is exposed to open air. You’ve just killed off most of the competitor fungi, allowing them to jump onto your chips through the open air doesn’t help anyone.

Cooling to ~80° f. for inoculation

Cooling to ~80° f. for inoculation

This time I spread about a large handful of spawn into each 26″ c 48″ bag and folded it over, and added about another cup of spawn and tightly rolled the sack. I laid the rolled bags in the bottom of a plastic tote, after adding a small amount of spawn to the bottom, and sprinkled a little spawn between layers. For the chips, once cooled, I moved the chips to a tote, and added spawn. I wound up running three pots of chips and three of burlap bags. When I was done with the bags I spread a little inoculated wood chips into the crevices and open spaces in the tote. 

Pasteurized and inoculated burlap bags to be used as base for Mushroom Gardens

Pasteurized and inoculated burlap bags to be used as base for Mushroom Gardens

This project is set to produce enough wood chips and burlap bags to put in two mushroom garden beds. The myceliated burlap will create a barrier between the ground and the raw wood chips that will be mixed with the myceliated wood chips. 

I’ll check the spawn in about a week, taking a quick peak to be sure that the mycelium in running and I’m not fermenting the chips. 

Throughout the spring, summer and fall we’ll be putting in edible mushroom gardens, Oyster Mushroom, Elm Oyster, King Stropharia, and Nameko are all great wood loving bases for garden beds. Some pair extremely well with particular plantings, bringing nutrients to the root ball in exchange for sugars from the plant essentially extending the size of the root ball and acting like a natural fertilizer.

If you’d like a consultation on your garden needs just give us a call!

UPDATE: Just checked the chips and burlap totes, all seem to be running pretty well.

 

 

 

Channrith Hing: From Landmines to Mushrooms – One man’s story of using mushrooms to better his world

Channrith Hing runs schools in Cambodia for three to six year old children through the not-for-profit Cambodia Children’s Advocacy Foundation. CCAF has established 13 preschools since its inception, helping 2,300 school children. The program is partnered with in home visits for parental education. Additionally as part of their mission, the CCAF staff expands the income generation of the families of the children they teach by over seeing the introduction of small scale farming best practices, training directly in the homes and communities of those they serve.  Hing is a trained attorney, and worked for the United Nations Transitional Authority for Cambodia during Cambodia’s first election in 1993.

Hing - United Nations Transitional Authority for Cambodia first election in 1993.

Hing – United Nations Transitional Authority for Cambodia first election in 1993.

Hing had been funded from a grant from Boeing Corporation and a  grant from a Methodist group allowed the school program to expand to 13 schools. Once the grants ended Hing decided that growing mushrooms for sale locally using rubber tree sawdust as a substrate, would be a quick way to create a funding stream to continue his programs. Once understanding all of the trouble of growing P. ostreatus (Oyster Mushrooms), he’d begin growing medicinal mushrooms – notably G. lucidum (Reishi Mushrooms).

But this isn’t the first effort to alleviate suffering and ending poverty that Hing has been involved in, 15 years ago he worked with victims of land mines. Hing’s work directing a rehabilitation center is detailed by long time friend, and Cambodian Children’s Foundation Board Member, Phil Nelson:

hing veterans int cambodia

Hing Circa 2003 – Veterans International Cambodia

Boston based, Phil Nelson is a retired social studies teacher he is exceptionally well traveled, during the first ten years of his teaching career he spent his summers exploring Europe. For over 25 years he has extensively explored South East Asia. He is the brother of a US Marine who died in combat during the Vietnam war, Nelson got a deferment from the Vietnam draft as a sole survivor.

. . .  “There were all these rusting wheel chairs with men in rotting military uniforms desperately waiting for the hospital to be built,”. . . 

It was in the early 1990′s and Phil Nelson was in Cambodia near what had been a Khmer Rouge torture school and noticed several people missing limbs. He asked a street vendor why there were so many injured people, the vendor directed him over a hill. Cautiously he proceeded and found dozens of people, all with missing limbs; arms, legs or both, camped under trees and bushes. It was small tent village. “There were all these rusting wheel chairs with men in rotting military uniforms desperately waiting for the hospital to be built,” Nelson said. “Those that could were helping. Imagine men with no arms carefully balancing lumber on their shoulders in order to build a hospital so they could be a patient.”

In the midst of this surreal scene of misery and survival that Nelson witnessed, was a brand new white SUV, so out of place that Nelson had to see why it was there. It turned out to be a USAID (United States Agency for International Development) official overseeing the hospital construction. Phil chose to document the people living in the bushes and trees in this encampment of homeless and limbless veterans and civilians, taking pictures and writing about what he saw. It’s important to note that in a 1996 World Health Organization report stated that over 4,800 people in Cambodia alone were injured by land mines, the report further states that that figure is significantly under reported.

Nelson was friends with many folks involved with the Vietnam Veterans of America, and when he returned to the US he was invited to a fundraiser thrown by the VVA, for a hospital being built in Cambodia. Phil immediately knew that the hospital supported by the VVA was the one he saw being built. He quickly offered his photos for future fundraisers for the construction of the Kien Kleang National Rehabilitation Center, for of the victims of land mines that he had met.

“Vietnam Veterans of America was financing the Rehabilitation Center, partnered with it’s Cambodian sister organization the Veteran International Cambodia – I started in 1996 at the Assistant Manager of the facility, designed not only for veterans but anyone effected by land mines, and anyone physically disabled. We provided therapy, braces, prosthesis, and wheel chairs.” Said Hing, who was soon to became the Center’s Site Manager. “Many people had to stay very long term in order to learn to walk again.”

“I met Phil in ’96 or ’97 on a visit he made to Cambodia, we kept up with each other,” Hing intimated to me during a recent Skype call, “At first I treated him as I would any donor, giving him regular updates of our work. but as Phil continued to come to Cambodia every summer and volunteer, we soon became best friends.”

Phil Nelson quickly began raising funds for the hospital on his own, shaking down friends and neighbors for donations and saving a significant portion of his salary for the hospital. Each summer he would travel to Cambodia to spend time, and to drop off the funds directly at the hospital. “Corruption in Cambodia is so rampant, any funds used for hospitals or schools is quickly funneled of into the pockets of government officials,” Nelson says.

. . . “The US bombing campaigns in Cambodia known as Operation Menu and Operation Freedom Deal not only caused horrendous injuries tens of thousands of innocent people, but can be directly attributed to the rise of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot.”. . .

 

Hing community dev 1

Recent CCAF Wheelchair Recipient – Photo Phil Nelson

 

Hing stays out of politics and refuses to on comment the cause of the injuries and poverty, but his US friend Nelson is more outspoken, “The US bombing campaigns in Cambodia known as Operation Menu and Operation Freedom Deal not only caused horrendous injuries to tens of thousands innocent people, but can be directly attributed to the rise of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot.”

American B52 Bombing SE Asia - Wikimedia Commons

United States Air Force B52 Bombing SE Asia – Date Unknown – Photo Wikimedia Commons

Despite Nelson’s best efforts the USAID ended the funding of the hospital. “For a long time land mine victims and land mine eradication were a cause célèbre and even though some celebrities like Steve Earle, Sheryl Crowe, and Emmy Lou Harris continued to hold concerts, Princess Diana’s death dealt a serious blow to funding rehabilitation efforts both politically and financially, and when the political will dried up, so did the USAID money.” Nelson told me in a recent conversation. “The British did an incredible job for many years taking out landmines but people are still being injured by them, fewer, but it’s no longer covered even in Cambodian media.”

. . . “The rice fields, you know kids don’t go to school there, when the parents work in the fields the children just sit there in the sun all day, doing nothing, all alone.”. . .

Nelson and Hing still working together when the Cambodian government took possession of the Rehabilitation Center because the USAID stopped the center’s funding. Hing resigned from the Rehab Center to begin the Cambodian Childrens Advocacy Foundation, a local NGO, and it was again Nelson raising funds in the US and Hing looking to Nelson and others for inspiration and doing the ground work.

Students - Phil Nelson

Students – Photo Phil Nelson

“The rice fields, you know kids don’t go to school there, when the parents work in the fields the children just sit there in the sun all day, doing nothing, all alone.” Nelson remembers. He and Hing decided to begin something to improve conditions of Cambodia’s poorest children.

” . . . The funding we receive is a small amount of the teacher’s salary, about $17.00, or a third of the teacher’s salary of $50.00 a month. We have to raise the rest. . .”

Hing began to raise funds for schools for preschool and kindergarten aged children founding CCAF and opening three schools simultaneously. Hing developed the curriculum as a pilot program designed to be eventually taken up by the Cambodian government. The goal of alleviating poverty and education children is lofty, but in a country with so little in terms of social services or available governments funds, even small scale projects have large effect on the people. All of Hing’s schools have vegetable gardens to supplement the caloric intake of the families of the students.

IMG_5023

“Our schools are overseen by the Cambodian Ministry of Education, and we receive technical advice, teacher training, and they monitor the work of the schools, recently we began to receive funding not from the Ministry of Education but from the Ministry of the Interior, at the provincial level” Hing told me, “The funding we receive is a small amount of the teacher’s salary, about $17.00, or a third of the teacher’s salary of $50.00 a month. We have to raise the rest.”

Phil Nelson teaching, 2014

Phil Nelson teaching, 2014

“Hing not only teaches the children to read and write at an early age, the schools teach general knowledge but most importantly reflective thinking, the precursor to critical thinking,” says Nelson. “That’s the rub, the government which essentially is a dictatorship doesn’t want critical thinkers to challenge them, it wants poverty level workers for the new family of Western owned clothing factories. Another reason the government doesn’t want to take up the problem of early education is that the government is so corrupt, theft of funds so prevalent, they’ve realized there’s no side money for them to take in small scale, early education projects.”

To date Hing has educated over 2,300 children.

The early Boeing Global Corporate Citizen grant allowed Hing some breathing room and enough money to open 13 small schools. The three year grant ended and wasn’t renewed when the Boeing Vice President for Asia received a promotion and the connection to the manufacturing giant dried up.

“. . . Last year Hing had to end a popular and economical program that allowed families to create income, the loan of chickens partnered with animal husbandry best practices education. . .”

Education is only one of CCAF’s activities; Raising the the local population and families of the school children out of the abject poverty they’re forced to live is also a main focus. Last year Hing had to end a popular and economical program that allowed families to create income, the loan of chickens partnered with animal husbandry best practices education. Hing lent families five chickens and one rooster, which allowed them to sell eggs. If successful at hatching chicks the program allowed them to sell the chickens as meat. After one year the families would return to CCAF five chickens and one rooster, keeping the offspring for their own flock.

“This program was successful, though many families had set-backs, disease in the flocks, problems with predators, or simply the need to eat during the worst economic times would wipe out a flock” Hing revealed, “Over all this program allowed dozens of families to rise out of poverty and many families are still raising chickens.”

While inexpensive to run the program did have costs, “with the ending of a Methodist Relief Development Fund grant we’ve had to cancel the program, though we are currently trying to have it taken up by the local chiefs.” said Hing. The MRDF Grant was given to CCAF twice, for a six year run, but grant guidelines only allow two concurrent funding cycles.

 

“. . . Loans of $100.00 or less were common, the purchase or materials were limited to $50.00. – followed by training in bookkeeping, was enough to raise income levels so the locals could afford necessities like school books and candles. . .” 

“Last year on my trip to Cambodia Rith and I had been told about an elderly blind woman whose neighbors had to bring her water, and some days she went without when the neighbors were too busy. Her shack was secluded, in the middle of rice paddies, and she couldn’t get to the community well. Hing and I dug wells until we found water,” Nelson told me, “now she has to only walk a few yards to get her water.”

Recent Recipient of CCAF Small Business Loan - Photo Cannrith Hing

Recent Recipient of CCAF Small Business Loan – Photo Cannrith Hing

Hing has had to cut back on other programs. Hing used to loan out money using local monasteries to find the appropriate recipients of small loans to open shops, or to find people to open small scale manufacturing operations in their homes. Some recipients opened shops and stores, others began sewing operations simply receiving enough thread and material to begin sewing. Loans of $100.00 or less were common, the purchase or materials were limited to $50.00. – followed by training in bookkeeping, was enough to raise income levels so the locals could afford necessities like school books and candles.

Boeing Corporation touted Cambodian Children’s Advocacy Foundation in the US as one of it’s success stories, setting up a tour in 2009 for US Senator Mary Cantwell, arranged by executive Paul Walters and Vice President of Global Corporate Citizenship, Anne Roosevelt.

Anne Eleanor Roosevelt – Former VP Boeing Corporate Global Citizenship Program

Hing read the writing on the wall,  When Paul Walters moved into a new role and the new regional Vice President named, Boeing wouldn’t renew his Corporate Citizenship grant, and gave him no  feedback why.

Adalia Hill, a Media Spokeperson for Boeing Corporation replied to my request for comment. Boeing states, ” the country president did not opt to not renew the grant. At that time Boeing was re-aligning giving strategy/objectives into key areas of impact and while the program is a good one, when the grant was submitted it ultimately did not meet the updated objectives.”  Hing has since reapplied and been turned down.

Instead of cutting programs Hing took a chance, creating new a program growing Oyster Mushrooms on Rubber Tree sawdust mixed with Rye Grain and other supplements for local sale. P. ostreatus, is a fast growing and aggressive cultivator, easy and fast to grow. It causes little problems and overcomes many competitor fungi. “I had gone to the internet to find the processes to grow mushrooms to raise funds for my programs, I found so many people willing to spend time with me, give me advice, and encourage my efforts.”

IHing Mushrooms farm Oyster

CCAF Oyster Mushroom Grow Room – 2013

About two years ago Hing realized that production of Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) known in Asia, as the Lingzhi, would be more profitable with only slightly, he thought, more work. He had an inoculation, incubation and grow rooms already, so he began experimentation and quickly went into production. He realized the extra profit he’d be able to plow back into his schools if he produced his own spawn and needed a laminar flow hood.

Reishi - Phil Nelson

Reishi – Phil Nelson

As usual Hing turned to internet forums for advice on the construction of the flow hood, chatting with people all over the world. Finally, with plans in hand, he took the time to carefully craft his hood. A benefactor in the UK provided the specialized filter. Using a laminar flow hood prevents contaminants from infiltrating the critical inoculation stage of mushroom cultivation.

“I like the production of Lingzhi, the problem I have is marketing, the local market is soft for cultivated Lingzhi, people want tree grown.” Hing’s disappointment was clear. Without a US distributor who would partner in a program similar to “Fair Trade” programs, one that would not only sell his production based on the medicinal value and value added of the use of the profits going to his good works.

In a recent conversation with Hing, I mentioned switching to log grown Reishi, frustrated he said, “Right now I can not even wait for the 30 days it takes each crop of Lingzhi from start to finish, I need to make payroll, having log grown production, which takes up to two years for a first crop would bankrupt me, who would pay the teachers?”

“Both in the cultivation of Oyster Mushrooms, and Lingzhi, I have made mistakes. Sometimes it feels like hundreds of mistakes!” he laughingly told me recently, “It is through these mistakes that I’ve learned, and perfected my skills.” Currently he has polished his skills further, perfecting cultivation of the medicinal cordyceps mushroom.

Hing preschool 1

Hing is the penultimate inventor. With finished materials so hard to get in rural Cambodia he has had to make do or do without. He’s chosen the path of neither; insisting that his schools and facilities have power he’s made wind generators from scratch. Insisting that water be available he’s hand dug wells and installed home made pumps. Insisting that the schools have funding he’s installed vegetable gardens so not only the children can eat, but so the organization can sell the produce to finance operations.

Hing refuses to be dejected about the future, each day he spends time working with his mushrooms, ensuring his schools are run well, and that individual foreign donors and volunteers are kept in close communication. He understands that his position can be one of a bottleneck, so he’s begun to teach his farm supervisor, Mam Sei, how to cultivate mushrooms. Hing is convinced that with some further skills learned from mycologists overseas, and slightly better facilities his efforts using the Fungi Kingdom to pay for his work will be successful.

 

Earlier this year Hing raised funds and traveled to Thailand, to an outfit known as IFarm, to learn liquid inoculation techniques, “I had to quickly raise $500, but the liquid inoculation saves a week of incubation time. It is open to contamination easier, but we’ve overcome that problem with better clean room skills”

 “. . . I’ve learned and developed growing Lingzhi and Cordyceps we can make it work. The future is in Fungi! . . .”

Lolita Van Buuren is from England and a recent volunteer. She’s a pharmaceutical saleswoman, taking a sabbatical to volunteer with CCAF. She has a background in finance, property development, and business management. She’ll be in Cambodia for two months, beginning next week, though she has been working long distance with Hing on feasibility studies. “After studying Rith’s work in mycology, as an attempt to finance his projects I can only say that we’ll have to look at completely canceling the operation if he doesn’t manage to get outside marketing.” Van Buuren told me over the phone, “Any project should only be given three years, and if within that time span can’t pay for itself it needs to be scrapped.”

Reishi CCAF

Channrith Hing stubbornly rebutted this analysis. “I appreciate the work she is doing, and understand that work must have payback, but with the right marketing and partnerships, even some kind of agricultural tourism where we teach the techniques I’ve learned and developed growing Lingzhi and Cordyceps we can make it work. The future is in Fungi!”

Fortunately Channrith Hing has never followed normal guidelines, if he’s run his life as Van Buuren suggests he run the medicinal mushroom business he may have left the service of his community long ago.

The Cambodian Children’s Advocacy Foundation’s website is: http://www.ccaf-khmer.org/

Installment II – “From Landmines to Mushrooms – The Trouble with Partnering with International Foundations and Volunteers” is due outWednesday, April 23rd