The best way to learn about mushrooms is to just start hunting for them.
Summer in New Mexico—when all is right with the world—means rain. And rain means the end of the windy season. Rain means a running river. Rain means a healthy garden. Rain means mushrooms in the mountains.
As a guy who uses the internet for a lot of research, I can tell you two things you can't learn much about online: rain and mushrooms. Want to know how to raise chickens? The internet can tell you. Want to know how to deliver a non-fatal donkey punch? The internet is your friend. Want to build a house from scratch? You can pretty much cut and paste from the internet.
But if you want to know when it's going to rain or how do avoid dying alone in the forest after eating the wrong mushroom, you're screwed.
Meteorologists, of course, are almost as culturally disdained as lawyers—everybody knows they just make that shit up and, approximately 30 percent of the time, it borders on accurate. But you'd think you could find expert opinions on mushrooms out there in the digital ether. Other dangerous subjects— explosives, rocket-powered arm chairs, gay rights in the military—have plenty of good information available to any fool with a connection. But no one will talk about mushrooms.
According to wikipedia.org, mushroom hunting is popular in Europe and the Mediterranean Basin, as well as Japan, Korea and Canada. Oh, and a little bit in northwestern and Appalachian United States. That will come as news to people in Illinois, California, Colorado, a dozen other states and—I'm told—New Mexico, where mushroom hunting is also popular.
What seems like it should be a New Mexican's go-to source for info, mycowest.org, is a fungusdense blockade against any kind of contact information. There's a monthly meeting for which one can sometimes find the location, but no one to email or telephone about how to go mad for mushrooms. I mean, myco-dorks, fungophiles and shroomgoons, meet Facebook, right?
Mushroom hunters, it turns out, are as elusive as the prey they seek. It is easy to imagine them as somewhat fungus-like themselves— quasi-camouflaged by nature, making an appearance only when the conditions are right, connected to each other by a vast unseen mycelium network that secretes its information like hard fought subterranean nutrients.
Still, it adds to the mystique of the mushroom that experts are secretive and not every idiot on the internet has an opinion. And one of the problems with the internet is that there's no moist, leafy detritus underfoot, there's no tree canopy, no earthy scent of fungi to rub off on your fingers (unless you spend way too much time online) and no real threat of death (unless you use Facebook to go looking for donkey punches).
Actually, according to prolific mushroom-oriented author David Arora—the most common end point of an online search for mushroom information in my experience—the fear of a horrible, intestinally gruesome, mushroom-induced death is a smidge overblown in our safety-conscious, hyper-litigious, perpetually ill-informed culture of Western, industrial privilege.
"Once you learn to avoid the few truly dangerous kinds," Arora writes in All That the Rain Promises, and More… his pocket guide to Western mushrooms, "the greatest risk you face is gastrointestinal distress of a greater or lesser degree, and our bodies are built to handle such distress. Yet, we are inundated with dire warnings about the dangers of 'toad-stool testing' that are vastly disproportional to the real damage that mushrooms inflict (they cause very few if any deaths annually in North America)."
I translate that to mean that eating wild-picked mushrooms is a bit safer than eating at your average fast-food joint. Still, as comfortable as I am with book learning and a well-illustrated field guide, it seems vaguely reckless to go wandering through the mountains, plucking and gobbling with nothing to fear other than "gastrointestinal distress of a greater or lesser degree." Partly because gastrointestinal distress in the mountains seems to always be of a greater degree.
Thus, beginning mushroom hunt ers should carefully stash their foraged goods in wax paper and bring them down from the hills for careful identification before indulging.
Corazón chef Tim Butterly is an avid mushroom hunter. He himself has a mushroom guru—"a guy who was selling me his forage," Butterly says. "We became friendly and he taught me a few tricks.
There are many edible mushrooms in the region, Butterly says, but it's easy to start with three of the most coveted culinary types: morels, chanterelles and porcini. The morels show up the earliest—after spring and early summer rains— and disappear after the summer heat settles in the mountains. Chanterelles come next, with increased moisture and, if the rains are good, they may linger well into September. Porcini—and New Mexico is one of the few regions away from the West Coast with a good porcini harvest—appear when the ground thaws around the pine trees at higher elevations.
"The morels and porcini dry and freeze well," Butterly says, "but the chanterelles are best used when fresh." He admits that finding the elusive mushroom guru is a helpful thing, but says forest rangers also are good sources of information and are able to give pointers on the wild flowers and trees with which different types of mushrooms are likely to be found.
"But they're not going to surrender their secret spots," Butterly says.
For those intimidated by seeking fresh mushrooms from the mountains, Butterly suggests going to the Santa Fe Farmers Market, where Danny Rhodes of Desert Fungi has his own Velarde-grown mushrooms on offer.
"We do lots of oyster mushrooms and have a good yield of Lion's Mane mushrooms as well," Rhodes says. Earlier in the year, he also had shiitake mushrooms, but Rhodes cautions that he's still working on getting his shiitake yields to a profitable level. He always has bags of stems on hand, which provide an outstanding base for homemade stock—pretty much the secret to beginning to really cook well.
The pleasures of hunting—and then cooking— mushrooms are addictive, according to Butterly.
"Some people look at it as a business—they've staked out spots and they forage in massive quantities and then try to sell to restaurants at top dollar," he says. "But to me, it's a treasure hunt to be in the wilderness looking for clues in the foliage, following the moisture and making sauces, soups and sautés that come straight from the mountain."
Some people are uncomfortable with something that doesn't come in a package or wasn't checked off by the United States Department of Agriculture, Butterly says, but once they feel the thrill of discovery and the taste of fresh mushrooms, they get over it pretty quickly.
The taste of fresh, earthy secrecy is another thing you'll never find on the internet.