From The Savory Wild Mushroom by Margaret McKenny
Poisoning of 'Horse Whisperer' author highlights dangers of mushroom hunting in Rocky Mountains
September 4, 2008 —
The dark and damp coniferous zones of the Rocky Mountains are luring me away from the city life once again this September – but before I seek out these ominous regions in my first, long-overdue, mushroom hunt of the year, I’m taking a moment to remember the dangers of reaping the mycological harvest.
Nicholas Evans, author of the best-selling novel “The Horse Whisperer,” recently escaped a brush with death after eating the highly toxic cortinarious speciosissimus, which he dined on in Scotland with his wife, her sister, and her sister’s husband according to the Associated Press.
While horses are clearly Evan’s forte, picking and eating wild mushrooms has also been a hobby, as it has been for me since I was a boy.
Incidents such as Evans’ tend to make the news – when they happen – and more than once I’ve offered a selection of hand-picked mushrooms to guests at an autumnal dinner table only to be refused. I've seen fear, even repulsion, in the eyes of those who would not sample my shrooms.
I suppose I can't blame them; mushrooms are foriegn, gooey, and long associated with bad people in fairy tales.
After being plied with cheap wine or good beer, most of my dinner guests will take the plunge and dig into the green and orange, or purple and white, foodstuffs from the Fungi Kingdom with vigor. Just as they are without any other parallel in texture, mushrooms have no parallel in taste. Once sampled I have never seen anyone turn away from a good wild mushroom again.
I find that blue grouse, particularly the younger ones, go very nicely with true wild rice and the boletus, orange milky cap, and chanterelle. So although mushroom hunting reaches its peak in August, it’s not until grouse hunting season opens up (Sept. 1), that I usually load up the Labrador, pack up a 20 gauge, and bring along a few ziplocks to hunt both grouse and ’shroom alike. After all, it's autum: time for harvest.
But there are dangers. The Fungi Kingdom is largely unexplored, vastly unknown even to science. Many forms of fungi exist which have yet to be discovered.
Beyond that, the reproductive cycle of mushrooms is difficult to discern or control. The secrets of farming mushrooms are so closely guarded that Terry Farms holds a patent on their morel mushroom farming method.
If ever one is in doubt, the Colorado Mycological Society can identify mushrooms for you, and you can also learn to perform spore tests with their help. Meetings are held on the second Monday night of each month, from March through October, at 7:30 p.m. at the Denver Botanic Gardens, 1005 York street.
The wildness of the mushroom is so severe that, unlike almost any other subject, books and pictures aren’t really capable of transferring the knowledge. A young toxic mushroom can appear much like an edible mature one, and visa versa. Beyond that many look like one another – so generally the safer, more commonly eaten mushrooms are the bizarre, ugly, funny-looking ones. Even my handy “Savory Wild Mushroom” guidebook (by Margaret McKenny), fails to list the orange milky cap. And now that I think about it, I’m not sure that’s even the correct name for my favorite of Colorado’s wild mushrooms.
No – knowledge of mushrooms doesn’t come from a book, as Mr. Evans likely knows all-too-well at this point. Having undergone kidney dialysis in the hospital, he and his family recovered and are up and doing well, but I imagine they may think twice when hunting the next time.
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