Some mushrooms are magic and were not talking about the kind that make you see rainbow-colored garden gnomes running through your kitchen. The Amanita muscaria mushroom is known by the moniker Christmas mushroom because of its red cap and white spots. It was believed to magically bring Russian nomadic people food during the harsh winter months, mushroom expert Bill Windsor said. The shroom is part of the Amanita family of mushrooms, nicknamed death caps because some of them will kill you.Its called a magic mushroom because it kept early people alive in the winter, Windsor said, holding the bright red mushroom in his hand. Early shamans used to eat the mushrooms and hallucinate. They would keep their urine and the next shaman would drink it and get high, too. The smell of the mushroom in the shamans urine was irresistible to reindeer of northern Europe and as they peed, hunters would wait as the deer walked right up to the shaman, he said. Voila dinner.Last week Windsor, a mushroom maverick from Boulder, led 20-some Vail Symposium attendees on a hunt for succulent fungi. The group gathered at Tennessee Pass for the foray, listening intently to Windsors mushroom primer, replete with interesting mushroom facts (all truffles are mushrooms), bizarre stories (some mushroom spores actually take over insect brains) and a handful of mushroom hunting tips including some relating to the festive Christmas mushroom. Some people hunt the mushroom for recreational use, but Windsor warns the trip generally isnt good and the mushrooms contain mild liver toxins. There is one positive about the speckled mushroom, though it is a good indicator that King Bolete mushrooms are nearby and Boletes were just the mushroom we were hunting. The big, round brownish caps of the King Bolete mushrooms called Cepe in France, Steinpilz in Germany and Porcini in Italy have a yellowish sponge-like underside instead of gills. Along with being relatively easy to identify, theyre quite tasty. If you find one, keep searching oftentimes multiple mushrooms sprout up within the same small area.
There are thousands of types of mushrooms but about two percent of mushrooms are really good to eat and about two percent are really bad to eat, Windsor said. There are lots in between that are edible but technically cardboard is edible too, but you wouldnt want to eat it.Mesh bags and wicker baskets in hand, our group dispersed. People wandered around, navigating tree stumps and boulders while intently scanning the forest floor. After 20 or 30 minutes, the shrill sound of a whistle pierced the air as Windsor summoned people back. Hands and baskets outstretched, people displayed their found fungi. Nothing stumped the man as he rattled off Latin mushroom genus and species names as if they were his own flesh and blood.Each year, Windsor, past president and current board member of the Colorado Mycological Society, chases individual species of mushrooms in Colorado. The hunt begins in mid-July at lower elevations and he moves higher into the mountains as the summer turns to fall the hunt ends in September at around 11,000 feet. Windsor said hunters can find morel mushrooms his favorite in Colorado from the end of April to the first part of July. I always get more than enough, but I have to do lots of hunting, he said. Once hes made his catch, Windsor dehydrates the mushrooms before freezing them. That way, the mushrooms stay good for up to two years; when it comes time to revive them, Windsor dehydrates them in milk (which puts the oils back in the mushroom) before adding them to one of his many mushroom dishes, he said. I get invited to lots of parties, Windsor said, chuckling. As a mushroomer, the expectation is that youll always bring a mushroom dish.
Mushroom hunting isnt all mouthwatering truffles, though. Along with identifying choice edible mushrooms, Windsor had an additional goal for the class.Theres one family of mushrooms I want everyone to learn and be able to identify every time the Amanita family. Nicknamed the death cap, Amanita species of mushrooms share three characteristics they all have white spores and white gills that are not attached to the stem, a ring on the stalk and bulb/ sack at the base of the stem from which the stem and cap emerge. Rumor has it that death caps are quite tasty, but eat one and the poison will circulate between your liver and gallbladder for a few weeks before you turn yellow from jaundice and die. In Colorado, if you stay away from all Amanitas and little brown mushrooms you will not die from mushroom poisoning. You might get sick and wish you were dead, but in case of a bad reaction to a mushroom, you will know that you did not eat a deadly mushroom, Windsor said. In the 30-some years Windsor has been collecting and eating mushrooms, hes never gotten sick, he said. Im very careful, though, he said, repeating a timeless mushroom mantra When in doubt, throw it out.
A few hours later, the smell of sauting King Boletes signaled success, as well as the end of our hunt. Windsor trimmed a third of the stem off (he recommends cutting even more if there are worm holes) before removing the sponge-like gills under the cap. If you cook them with the rest of the mushroom, they turn slimy, he said. Instead, he dries the yellow flesh and grinds it down to use as soup stock. After cutting the mushroom into equal-sized chunks, Windsor sauted them in butter, salt, thyme and a splash of white wine. Forks in hand, people swarmed around the steaming plate of mushrooms yum, one woman said, slowing shaking her head up and down as she chewed contentedly.Fraidy Aber, executive director of the Vail Symposium, called the mushroom foray a success were planning on bringing Bill (Windsor) back again in June for morel hunting, she said.There are a ton of people in this valley that love mushrooms and mushroom hunting. I think were all outdoors a lot and so we see them all the time people are really always curious. Come next spring, Aber said she hopes to start a mushroom club in the valley. I think our valley has a lot of closet mushroom enthusiasts.Arts & Entertainment Editor Caramie Schnell can be reached at 748-2984 or firstname.lastname@example.org.