Dominique Collet, left, leads a wild mushroom identification workshop in Soldotna last weekend. The ground is covered with different species of mushrooms right now. Some are a joy to the tongue and others are just a pleasure to the eye.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
The weather was typical for the late summer, early fall kind of a day that it was.
The early morning temperature was cool, the mercury just above 40 degrees. The air was damp and there was dew on the ground from the rain that fell over the last few days.
Overhead, honey-colored cottonwood leaves flittered to the ground with each gust of cool breeze.
It was a perfect day to pick mushrooms.
Of course, Dominique Collet knew this would be the case last Saturday when he as part of the Kenai Watershed Forum's summer program series picked the date for a mushroom identification workshop.
Amy Williams examines some of the many mushrooms brought in to the lecture for identification.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Collet, an expert with more than 15 years experience with mushrooms, lichens and other fungi, annually leads the workshop. The popularity of the summer program has grown each year, so this year Collet led two workshops each limited to 30 people and both were filled to capacity.
"It's one of our most popular summer programs," said Kenai Watershed Forum event organizer Josselyn Burke.
"We did the first one a few weeks ago and it filled up like mad, so we decided to do a second one. It's a real interactive workshop. Everyone loves it," she said.
The workshops are split into two parts. For the first part participants meet outside River City Books in Soldotna where they decide on different locations and habitats to search, such as spruce forests, pine stands, open pastures and lawns. Then participants load up and carpool to go mushrooming.
Participants of the workshop were as mixed as a the fungus they came to collect men and women, young and old, some with no mushroom-collecting experience and others with a lot.
"I like to eat mushrooms and I always see a lot when I'm hunting and fishing, so I wanted to come to learn which ones are safe and which are unsafe," said David Johnsrud of Soldotna.
A member of the bolete family rises above grass and clover in Kenai. Many boletes are edible but a few are poisonous.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Some participants, like Frank Kufel of Sterling, already knew quite a bit about collecting treasures from the forest floor, but were looking to add even more to their body of fungal knowledge.
"I've been picking since I was a kid. I used to go out with my grandpa," Kufel said.
Several decades have passed since then and Kufel's interest still hasn't waned.
He said it's more than his appetite that is piqued by picking mushrooms.
"I love picking them. I love identifying them. I love studying them. You just never know what you'll find. It's a good academic challenge that's good exercise and you can eat your treasures, too," he said.
Participants took the task at hand seriously and came well prepared. Many were dressed in warm sweaters or bright windbreakers. Some had chocolate-colored insulated rubber boots to tromp around marshy areas.
Almost all carried a mushroom field guide and nearly came with a paper bag, wicker basket or cardboard box they were hoping to fill.
Shaggy manes often appear in freshly mowed grass and are considered edible.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
They were not disappointed.
Hours later they came back for the second part of the workshop where the mushrooms are grouped and identified. Participants brought literally hundreds of specimens with them.
The second part of the workshop also is where participants began learning to answer for themselves the question that many, if not all, wondered and asked about dozens of times during the workshop "Is it poisonous?"
"I hear that question a lot," Collet said, but added he doesn't tire of answering it.
After all, mushroom hunting is not a hobby for the uninformed. Many wild mushrooms are poisonous and a few are deadly, so those who pick carelessly may not be long for this world.
That being said, mushroom picking is not the death-defying culinary feat that some people imagine it to be, which is one of the reasons Collet said he leads the identification workshop.
"Mushrooms are weird and mysterious, but people are curious about them. They're interested. This (workshop) helps demystify them," he said.
Some species of puffballs are edible, although connoisseurs recommend cutting them open to make sure that they're not immature forms of the fly agaric.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
For those who hadn't meet Collet before, they quickly realized he is a man who could happily talk about flora 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Although he was there just to give a brief introduction to mushroom collecting, he was nonetheless comprehensive in his task.
"It's challenging. There's no quick trick to recognizing edibles," he said.
With that he embarked on a mission to teach basic information about the structure of fungi.
Collet reviewed physical characteristics, such as size, shape, color, if there are gills or spores under the cap, if the stalk has a ring and whether the stalks when broken simply snapped in two or were more fibrous in nature, tearing rather than brittlely snapping.
A particularly salient point was that many edible mushrooms have poisonous look-alikes. For example, the tumbleball (Bovista plumbea) is a small to medium-sized, round, puffball-like mushroom that is edible and regarded by many as quite delicious.
However, the poisonous fly agaric (Amanita muscaria), can when young resemble small tumbleballs, so all puffball mushrooms should be sliced from top to bottom to examine the interior and ensure it is completely white and featureless inside.
Collet also discussed how mushrooms reproduce and demonstrated how knowledge of this can be used as an identifying characteristic by way of creating spore prints.
This is done by cutting the cap off a mature mushroom and laying it on a piece of white paper with the blade-like gills, or spore-baring surface, down.
After a few hours, enough spores will fall that their color can be determined.
"Many mushroom species are only identified with certainty by using spore prints to determine spore color," Collet said.
All this information may have seemed a bit excessive for an introduction to identifying mushrooms, but since a mistake may be potentially deadly,
Collet said mushroom-pickers must know with absolute certainty what they are about to eat.
"There can be no doubts. You must positively know it. Otherwise, it's like playing Russian roulette," he said.
Collet also recommended, at least initially, consuming mushrooms in small quantities since there can be individual allergic reactions to wild mushrooms otherwise deemed safe. Also, if misidentified, the chances of severe poisoning are reduced if the amount ingested in moderate rather than a huge quantity.
There is a wide spectrum of mushrooms that fall between the categories of delicious and deadly, and Colet tried to emphasize that mushroom eating is not a black and white affair.
"Many people don't care about taste or texture. They just want to know if it's edible. I try and go beyond that," he said.
Collet emphasized freshness. Many species are best picked early in the morning, soon after it rains.
"Look for mushrooms that are young and small. Only eat fresh ones like you would any fruit or vegetable," he said.
Collect also said to make certain mushrooms are insect-free, since older specimens can be infested with worms and maggots. All specimens should be thoroughly cleaned before eating, he said.
Collet focused not only on which species to eat, but the nuances of how to them. This is particularly important since some species that are edible come with cautions in regard to how they are prepared or eaten.
For example, the morel (Morchella angusticpes) is a favorite of feral fungi feasters and one of the mushrooms many newcomers cut their teeth on due to the distinct appearance of its cream-colored, cone-shaped, honeycomb-patterned cap.
However, even morels can cause gastric upset and other adverse reactions if eaten raw rather than cooked thoroughly.
Another more extreme example is the inky cap (Coprinus atramentarius), a small to medium-sized mushroom that is gray-brown in color, with a hollow stalk and a bell-shaped cap with gills that yield a black spore print.
"The inky cap should not be consumed with alcohol," Collet said.
This mushroom produces an unusual amino acid, called coprine, which in the human body is converted into a compound that interferes with the breakdown of alcohol.
Consumption of alcoholic beverages within 72 hours after eating inky caps can cause headaches, nausea, vomiting, breathing difficulties, heart irregularities and disturbances of blood pressure that last for two to three hours.
However, if cautions regarding morels, inky caps and other mushrooms are observed, they can be delicious table fare.
"There's probably 20 that are really worth picking," Colet said in regard to the more palatable species in the area. He added that his favorite is the king bolete (Boletus edulis).
"It is by far the best. It has very good flesh, is firm, gets a good size and tastes very good," he said in regard to the large, robust mushroom which has a thick stalk that is enlarged near the base and a cap that often looks like a large fluffy pancake, with sponge-like tubes underneath it rather than gills. The spore print for the king bolete is olive brown.
Collet's years of scouting out locations have provided him with a vast area in which to find his favored fungus, and this season he hit the mycological mother lode on two separate occasions.
"Twice this summer I've gotten four to five pounds of king boletes," he said.
Collet said he made the most of each and every one. King boletes are often simmered in spaghetti sauces or baked into casseroles and can complement stews and stir-fry. However, Collet prefers them a different way.
"I like them pan-fried or sauteed in butter and garlic with a bit of salt. I use them in omelettes. I will also cut them into quarter-inch-thick slices and dry them thoroughly in a well ventilated area to use later as a base for mushroom soup," he said.
Upon completion of the workshop, participants said they had gleaned quite a bit from Collet and were ready to go searching for their own mushrooms.
"This (workshop) is a good place to start," said Sharon Roesch of Soldotna. "You can really latch on to some species. I'm not going to go out and identify them all, but I think there are definitely a few that I could identify now and feel safe about."
Ben Keenen of Soldotna said he is looking forward to enjoying the fruits or perhaps more appropriately, the fungus of his labor, after attending the workshop for his second time this season.
He's also taken the workshop in years past.
"I learn more each time I come, so I keep coming back," he said.
Collet said he's happy the workshop was so well received by the participants, since he enjoys teaching and interacting with the public. He said tongue in cheek there's only one downside to so many people being interested in mushroom collecting:
"It's more competition for me."
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