Monday, August 1, 2011

An Unexpected Harvest - Wild Chanterelle Mushrooms

Just above our garden, along the lower side of an old road bed, we oftentimes can find chanterelle mushrooms in late July or early August. On Saturday, as Cathy was weeding the garden, I took off with a plastic bag to see if any mushrooms were growing. Whatever environmental conditions determine successful mushroom growth, they were ideal this year. I filled a plastic grocery bag nearly to overflowing with beautiful wild chanterelle mushrooms. There must have been five pounds. We will cook these in olive oil with salt, pepper, and a bit of thyme, and then vacuum seal and freeze the cooked mushrooms. They are fantastic in risotto and over pasta.

2011 Chanterelle mushroom crop
In July of 2005, the summer we were building the house, we noted mushrooms all over the property, some that looked exactly like porcini mushrooms, some huge orange mushrooms, and something that clearly looked like chanterelles.

Knowing absolutely nothing about mushrooms and other fungi, we bought a book on mushrooms of West Virginia, and spent a good part of the weekend identifying different species. We identified more than 25 species, including chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius), many blue and green species, the deadly Death Angel mushroom (Amanita bisporigera), and discovered that what we thought were porcini mushrooms were in fact just that. With one catch. They were a species very closely related to that which grows in Italy. Same size, same shape, same color, but with one key difference: the species was known as the Bitter Boletus. It smelled like a porcini, but tasted like a mixture of a mushroom and a horribly bitter alkaloid. Like chewing an aspirin. Perfectly edible, if you don't mind the taste.

Jack-O'-Lantern mushrooms
The most amazing mushroom we found, however, was most notable for its color (bright orange like a pumpkin), its size (8-10" across), the sheer number growing in one place (2-3 dozen) and for its name: Jack-O'-Lantern mushroom (Omphalotus olearius). While any large orange mushroom is remarkable, what makes this mushroom unique is that it glows in the dark; it is bioluminescent. It is also poisonous, although not deadly. Being a scientist and skeptic, and never having heard of a bioluminescent mushroom, we picked a few and waited until it was absolutely dark. The gills of the mushroom glowed an erie green color.

Your eyes have to be completely dark adapted to see this, as it is faint. The bioluminescence is due to the enzyme luciferase and its substrate luciferin, the same system used by fireflies. Now that is a weird facet of evolution, same enzyme, same substrate, same chemical process, but in organisms whose common ancestors diverged about 1.3 billion years ago.

Anyway, looks like wild mushroom risotto tonight. With real wild mushrooms.

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