EAGLE — Try as he might, mushroom guru Ken Kassenbrock can’t quite sway his family to become full-on, die-hard foragers.
It’s not that the Kassenbrock clan gets squeamish about fungi. It’s almost the opposite: When the lifelong biology professor convinces his siblings to join him on a mushroom hunt, they get in the mood almost immediately.
Here’s how the day plays out: Kassenbrock and the rest gather their foraging basics — a knife, brush, compass, rain gear and paper bag to port their edible finds — and then head out in search of mature, full-grown fungi. The Rocky Mountains are bursting with hundreds of varieties, particularly come mid-August, when the combination of rain and heat in late summer turns the forest floor into a damp greenhouse.
From there, the culinary sky is the limit. Everything from springtime morels to fat, summer-long oyster mushrooms can be cut, cleaned and served with a smoky merlot or home-brewed IPA — the makings of a locavore feast.
But when Kassenbrock isn’t around to play hunt guide, well, it’s a different story.
“Learning mushrooms is a slow process, particularly if you want to learn them to eat,” said Kassenbrock, who teaches mycology (the study of mushrooms and molds) at Colorado State University. “Not everyone has the temperament for it. Some people are afraid to do it on their own because there really is an element of personal responsibility involved.”
For Kassenbrock, that’s where a Ph.D. in biology and nearly four decades of fascination with all things fungi come into play. On foraging expeditions, the professor in him pairs perfectly with the locally minded foodie: He’s quick to identify edible and poisonous varieties. His family enjoys the mushroom treks — like hunting in any form, it can simply be an excuse to wander through the great outdoors — but they just don’t share his passion for the biology, ecology and science-fueled side of the hobby.
Yet Kassenbrock isn’t alone. Today through Sunday, he’s one of three fungi experts at the Eagle Wild Mushroom and Wine Weekend, an annual festival dedicated to the art — and off-kilter ecstasy — of foraging.
“I love the beauty of the mushrooms,” Kassenbrock said. “They’re like wildflowers — you can just enjoy them for their beauty. But then you have the thrill of the hunt, almost like looking for Easter eggs. It’s thrilling.”
Know your genus
The Eagle mushroom fest is one of several in the state, but it’s one of the few to stay relatively laid-back. This isn’t a crowded, sweltering music festival: Organizers expect roughly 200 attendees for a slew of mushroom tastings, wine pairings, educational seminars and, of course, foraging treks.
Kassenbrock is joined by Katrina Blair, owner of the Turtle Lake Community Organic Garden in Durango, and eccentric mushroom fanatic Larry Evans, a Montana native who’s fresh off guiding hunts at the Telluride Mushroom Festival.
Together, the three will guide mushroom hunts and identification sessions on Saturday and Sunday, giving festival-goers a taste of that first-hand knowledge Kassenbrock’s family enjoys. It also introduces fledgling foragers to the wild abundance of the town and surrounding forests.
“This festival really has camaraderie,” event director Jen Radueg said. “There’s a sense of community, and the community in Eagle really gets behind this event. It’s a very easy festival to come in and learn, get that one-on-one interaction with the experts.”
When planning a hunt, Kassenbrock’s first morsel of advice is simple: Head to the woods. Mushrooms are vast, infinitely complicated fungi, but newcomers often begin by digging through dry guidebooks with photos and lengthy descriptions. Those basics make a decent foundation, sure, but it’s on par with changing your oil blindfolded.
“Mushroom books are terrific and get you part of the way there, but there’s no substitute for seeing mushrooms in person,” Kassenbrock said. “Often, you have to handle a mushroom and even smell one — fragrance can be an important part of identification.”
In Colorado, identification can be a bit tricky. Last year’s festival foragers collected more than 100 different varieties in just two days of searching. Some were edible, some weren’t, but the sheer diversity can be intimidating, and more often than not, photos in a guidebook don’t exactly mirror real life. Mushroom festivals are a near-perfect introduction to hands-on foraging, with experts to act as bottomless guidebooks.
“There’s a fine line between encouraging a fun activity and getting people over their heads,” Kassenbrock said. “With mushrooming, it’s not like picking wild raspberries. You need a little more care.”
Once on the hunt, Kassenbrock said newcomers will learn the most by honing in on only one genus or species at a time. He suggests cutting the stems — plucking an entire fungus from the earth can harm the micro-ecosystem — and handling the cap (also known as fruit body) carefully. That said, he’s a major proponent of touching and, yes, smelling any uncovered fungus.
“There’s no mushroom equivalent to poison oak or poison ivy,” Kassenbrock said. “Just touching them won’t hurt you or give you a rash or make you sick. There are plenty that can get you sick if you eat them, but handling them isn’t a problem.”
Taste of the forest floor
Of course, the edible question is a major part of the Eagle festival. When foraging wraps up each afternoon, the experts and attendees head to Eagle Ranch Golf Club to sort and savor their finds.
On Saturday afternoon, chefs with Colorado Mountain College’s culinary program will be on-hand to prepare mushrooms for tasting. It’s not quite a straight-from-nature experience, but in the right hands, mushroom diversity leads to a new range of gourmet flavors. After all, it’s still a culinary festival.
“We really wanted this to stand out as a festival where you go out, forage, then taste the products you found,” Radueg said. “It just highlights the foodie aspect of mushrooms and wild edibles, and with wine and beer, it’s a great pairing. This is just a natural fit.”
If Kassenbrock is any indication, foragers and foodies can be one in the same, particularly at this time of year. He hopes to find plenty of porcini (Boletus edulis), one of several beginner-friendly mushrooms in Colorado. Found above 8,000 feet but below treeline — or most of forested Eagle County — he said the species only grows with plenty of rainfall and decent tree cover, but once found, they’re easy to spot with large, tan caps, sometimes even more reddish-brown, and plump stems.
Although other popular species like morels are a bit out of season, Kassenbrock will also hunt for chantrelle (Cantharellus cibarius), a flared fungus with vibrant gold coloring like a sunflower, and the oddly named hedgehog mushroom (Hydnum repandum).
The hedgehog mushroom is one of the few local edibles with no poisonous lookalikes — even the morel has a dastardly twin, known as a fake morel — and while the cap looks like a chantrelle, the underside is lined with little teeth or spines instead of gills. It’s hard to find, but the nutty, semi-sweet taste is worth the scrounging.
Then again, Kassenbrock loves the hunt nearly as much as the fungi. He and his siblings occasionally get a bit lost, but one thing’s for sure: They’ll never go hungry.
“If you mushroom hunt long enough, you will get lost,” Kassenbrock said.
“You find a bunch of mushroom and follow from mushroom to mushroom, and then you think, ‘How do I get back?’ It’s part of the hunt.”