All hail the ‘shroom boom
August 25, 2006
‘Tis the season to be a ‘shroomer.
The valley has seen a fair number of rainy days this summer, and scores of spores have busted out.
Colorado’s mushroom season coincides with spring and summer rains, generally lasting from mid-April through the end of September. But July and August are the best months for mushrooms, and the 2006 season has been nothing less than extraordinary.
“For the most part, this has been the best year I’ve seen in forever,” said Mark Fischer, owner and chef at Carbondale’s Six89 restaurant, a popular downvalley eatery known for its seasonal fare.
Right now, that means a menu rife with mushrooms. Six89’s menu changes every day, and Fischer said that makes it easy to incorporate locally picked mushrooms when they’re available. A half-dozen mushroom hunters have been making their way to his back door to peddle their locally picked goods, and Fischer said that means mushrooms “are all over the menu.”
“It’s been such a good year that they’re coming in from everywhere,” he said.
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The law of supply and demand means the great ‘shrooms come at a great price, too.
“These are the best chanterelles I’ve ever seen, and they’re the cheapest,” he said.
Meanwhile, up toward Ashcroft, the Pine Creek Cookhouse has been cooking up its fair share of local mushrooms. The secluded mountain restaurant features wild game, and Chef Rob McClanahan said mushrooms make a fantastic mate.
The chefs at the Pine Creek Cookhouse prefer to use local ingredients as much as possible, and recently, McClanahan has seen a lot of chanterelle, porcini and morel mushrooms.
“Obviously, when it rains, you get mushrooms,” he said. “It’s been a real good season.”
As they have at Six89, mushroom hunters have been turning up at the Pine Creek Cookhouse toting bags of mushrooms. Often, many of the mushrooms aren’t edible or have worms, so the restaurant’s staff still has to pick through the bags, but the chefs are happy to use the mushrooms that pass muster.
Mushroom mania goes far beyond established restaurants, though. Seasoned ‘shroom-seekers have seen a smorgasbord of edibles to cook up themselves, as well as a host of nonedibles that fungophiles appreciate just for being.
And because wild mushrooms grow throughout the Roaring Fork Valley, even the inexperienced mushroom hunter will be treated to gorgeous hikes, whether or not he or she spots any mushrooms.
Andrew Hughes, a naturalist with the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, said he likes to look for mushrooms around Independence Pass.
“There’s a little more moisture up there, and there’s also some variability,” he said.
To the north, McClanahan said, “the chanterelles are good up at Ruedi” Reservoir. And with recent rains, the fungi appear to be mushrooming in all points in between. Mushrooms like moisture, and Aspen has seen enough wet weather to spawn a slew of spores this summer.
“It essentially requires rain, and then 48 hours after that, they come out,” Hughes said. “Did it rain every day in July? It was pretty close.”
It’s a myth, though, that all mushrooms like dark places. Some species do grow better with some light.
“It’s different strokes for different folks,” Hughes said. “Some types of mushrooms prefer coniferous forests, and [others prefer] open meadow.”
Many mushrooms make their homes on fallen trees. They help decompose the deadwood and act as a recycler.
Many mushrooms make for good eating, but it’s important to distinguish between the edibles and nonedibles.
Hughes offered some advice on how to avoid an unpleasant experience. It’s good to cook mushrooms really well and eat them in moderation, he said, and it’s a good idea to keep a sample of the mushrooms for later identification in case someone does get sick.
Sometimes tasting a mushroom can help in identifying it, but don’t swallow. Hughes also said to steer clear of mushrooms that have deteriorated or exploded.
Despite tips like these, though, the general rule in the mushroom world is, “when in doubt, throw it out.” Colorado has only one lethal mushroom, but a number of species can make a person sick.
Experienced mushroom hunters can often identify different species without much help, but newbies will need a little guidance.
Mushroom expert Vera Evenson led several days of lectures and forays at ACES during early August. Evenson is a mycologist with the Denver Botanic Gardens and author of “Mushrooms of Colorado and the Southern Rocky Mountains.”
Those classes are over, but the center sells a number of field guides to help in the hunt, from a waterproof, fold-out guide to larger Peterson’s field guide to a book devoted solely to the mushrooms of Colorado.
Also, every Wednesday in September, ACES will sponsor a hike. The hikes aren’t designed specifically for mushroom hunting, but many of the center’s staff are mushroom-savvy, and Hughes said it’s a great opportunity to learn about any remaining mushrooms.
The 2006 season may have peaked, but Hughes said it’s not too late to find the fungi.
“They’re definitely still there,” he said. “But it’s hard to ignore the fact that it’s starting to be fall. You can still find them, but we’re starting to run out of time.”