Contrary to popular belief, mushroom hunting does not have the risk factor of Russian roulette. In fact, with a little knowledge and some common sense, it can be safer than many other hunts.
I’ve met many Yukoners who forage avidly for berries and wild greens but draw the line at mushrooms, exhibiting symptoms of the fungophobia that is ubiquitous on this continent. It is true that there are poisonous and even deadly mushrooms, but the Yukon’s extremes of dry and cold give us the advantage of lower diversity and hence easier identification than our southern or coastal neighbours. As with any new food, go easy: the first time you try a new type of mushroom enjoy it in small amounts. Everyone’s body has its own sensitivities.
Mushrooms are the reproductive part of a fungus, the rest of which is made up of mycelia: long threadlike structures that run throughout the substrate upon which it feeds. This could be a tree, a rotting log, or a pile of compost — some even stretch for kilometres through the soil. Like a short-lived flower, a mushroom is ephemeral and mushroom hunters must be ever-vigilant.
My edible mushroom calendar for the Yukon focuses on puffballs in June, meadow and horse mushrooms in July, and boletes in August (earlier ones are often wormy).
Puffballs are spherical white mushrooms with no stem, boletes are distinguished by pores instead of gills on the underside of the cap and can be many colours, and meadow and horse mushrooms look similar to the button mushrooms from the store, though bigger. It is important to use a guidebook to identify mushrooms. Not all are edible.
A recent taste extravaganza compels me to wax lyrical on the puffball.
Puffballs have a delicious earthy flavour and an amazing texture — a cross between a marshmallow and silken tofu. I find them in open, dry environments, and while I haven’t harvested the head-size whoppers boasted of down south, I have been thrilled to discover specimens six inches across.
The trick with puffballs is timing. They should be firm, and pure white inside. Older mushrooms may become spongy from burrowing beetles and larvae — still edible, though less palatable. Once the inside of a puffball begins to turn colour however, leave them for the squirrels.
This happens as spores are produced and mature, eventually filling the skin like a balloon, until “pop” — a drift of cocoa powder hovers above the meadow.
So arm yourself with a good guidebook, don’t eat anything that tastes or smells foul, and practice your mushroom call.
Recipe for Grilled Puffballs
Juice of one lemon,
2 cloves of garlic (crushed),
¼ c olive oil,
salt and pepper to taste.
For an extra Yukon twist, use homemade raspberry vinegar instead of the lemon juice.
Slice mushrooms* into 1 cm slabs and marinate for at least three hours. Grill on the barbeque or over an open fire until browned, brushing frequently with marinade. Any large meadow and horse mushrooms may be treated the same way.
*A note that the skin of puffballs may cause stomach irritation for some, though I have eaten many unpeeled.