Keep me searching for a heart of gold

One recent hot, muggy morning, I went mushrooming in the woods with my neighbor, Dorcas. She and her husband live here year-round. We often see them out with their dog in all seasons, walking on the road by the lake, or snowshoeing or cross-country skiing through the meadows. Often, in the coldest months, we’re the only people along the road. We always stop and say hello and exchange news, a bunch of happy hermits, comparing notes.

Dorcas picked me up in her Prius after breakfast and whisked me off to her secret spot, a spot I’d sworn never to reveal to anyone or to revisit on my own. Mushroomers are jealous and possessive, and with very good reason.

We set off on foot through the woods on a well-kept path strewn with pine needles, soft and springy underfoot. It was cooler in the trees. A breeze lifted the hemlock and pine branches with soft whooshing sounds.

“Be careful where you walk,” she said. “It’s very hard to see them and easy to step on them by accident.”

I immediately slowed down and paid attention to the ground.

“Shoot,” Dorcas said after we’d walked for a while without finding anything, “maybe we’re too late, maybe they’re already all gone.”

Black trumpets are also known as black chanterelles and horns of plenty. They’re funnel-shaped, and when they dry, they’re inky black. Apparently, they’re one of the hardest mushrooms to find and also one of the most delicious, which explains why Dorcas is so careful about revealing her source.

We walked slowly along.

Dorcas is 74. She and her husband of 51 years recently took a six-day hike in the Dolomites, hiking eight or more strenuous, steep miles a day and sleeping in huts. She walked along as easily as I did, nimble and athletic. She never stopped scanning the ground right at our feet.

“Hey,” I called out helpfully every time I saw a mushroom or other fungus, no matter what kind, scalloped dun-colored fungi covering a fallen log, a dead-white toadstool with a neon orange underbelly. “There’s a mushroom. Maybe we’re not too late for the black trumpets after all.”

“The brighter the color, the more poisonous the mushroom,” she told me.

We continued on, slowly, searching every inch of pine needles, fallen branches, dried leaves, and earth.

“There, a whole patch,” she said. “But they’re dried ones again. The season may be over already. We got two big bags of them in August.”

I didn’t see them at first, and then I did: small black shriveled things against the dark ground, almost invisible, spreading for several feet along the path. They looked not even remotely edible, like bits of crumpled tarpaper or lumps of volcanic rock.

“They grow along the path,” she said. “I think they like a bit of sunlight.”

And then, at last, we found a patch of fresh funnel-shaped little mushrooms in a wet, boggy depression in the path: beautiful little horns on slender stalks, charcoal colored. We picked them all, a couple of handfuls – it had been a treasure hunt, and now we had been rewarded for our patience.

Back at the farmhouse, Dorcas pulled up in front of the barn and handed me the bag of mushrooms.

“I’m not taking your mushrooms!” I said. “No way!”

But she insisted. I knew how kind this was; such generosity does not come along very often. I accepted with thanks and took my treasures inside.

I cleaned the mushrooms by tearing them gently in half and shaking out the pine needles and bits of earth from their crevices and wiping them gently.They are very thin-skinned and delicate and velvety, and they come apart in long strips with an earthy perfume; they’re also called the poor man’s truffle. I admired them all afternoon there on the cutting board as I went about my day.

When it was time to cook dinner, I got out a large, shallow skillet, and in it, I sautéed 2 minced shallots and several minced garlic cloves in lots of butter and olive oil. When they were soft, I pushed them to the side and browned four skinless, boneless chicken thighs well; while they browned, I dusted them with sea salt, black pepper, paprika, and Old Bay seasoning. I removed them from the pan and added the mushrooms and cooked them for a minute or two, then put the thighs back in with a whisked-together sauce of about 1/3 cup each half-and-half and chicken broth plus a teaspoon of Dijon mustard. I covered the skillet and let it simmer for ten minutes. I served this delectable dish over wild rice with a side of steamed, garlicky baby spinach.

The mushrooms tasted clean, faintly smoky, and very rich, and their texture was delicate and meaty. They were the best I’d ever eaten.

While we ate, a ferocious windy rainstorm blew in and washed away the heavy heat and was gone in twenty minutes; afterwards, the air was golden and almost chilly. Fall had come, just like that.

When we woke up this morning, the air was chilly and tinged with autumn. After breakfast, Brendan and I set off into the woods behind our house and, after about forty-five minutes, on a wooded path that will remain secret forevermore, we found our own patch of black trumpets. Brendan spotted them. They were dried and black, like most of the ones Dorcas and I had found, but the fruiting body was there to be checked whenever they’re in season.

On the way home, Brendan stopped to look at an enormous scalloped fungus growing at the base of a tree.

“I think this is a hen of the woods,” he said.

Looking down, I recognized it from supermarkets, where it’s labeled “Maitake” and neatly packaged and sold for around $20 a pound.

We carried the whole beautiful, springy, fresh-smelling thing away with us in the plastic bag we’d brought; it weighed more than two pounds. When we got home, we identified it easily, since there are no known toxic lookalikes, and it looked textbook-identical to its photographs.

A little while later, we dropped our first-ever mushroom haul off at Dorcas’s with a note thanking her for showing us the way — a tribute to our mycology guru, and a sign of honor among thieves.

And now we have our own mushroom patches, two different kinds, to guard jealously and possessively.

About Kate Christensen

eater, citizen, enthusiast, curmudgeon
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3 Responses to Keep me searching for a heart of gold

  1. Lecia says:

    We all need a neighbor like Dorcas.

    Foraging – and gardening – make me feel alive; more, I don’t know, like a mammal. Silly but true.

  2. Deborah says:

    If you were to put all of this site’s posts into a book(s), I would buy it
    It is hard to leave comments because I always feel so complete after each one, there’s nothing I could add to any of it. And you have to know it’s great writing. (!) Many thanks, Kate.

  3. Cyndi Ferguson says:

    Kate. I miss your blog posts. Where are you?!

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