Gathering Wild Mushrooms with a ‘Witch’!
When I was 5 years old, my grandmother sent me down the hill to meet the witch! The witch was a little old lady from Latvia. She wore aprons to her ankles, covered her wispy gray hair with a triangular kerchief and, (this is how you tell if an old lady is really a witch), she had a wart on her cheek!
Her name was Grandma Rhus and having grown up in a culture of gathering wild mushrooms, she knew how to find them in the woods. At 5 years old, I had heard the story of Hansel and Gretel, and I was no fool. But my grandmother wanted mushrooms and so down the hill I went.
It had rained hard the day before, which I remember because my bare feet squished deliciously into mud on the woody paths. In retrospect, of course, I know mushrooms abound after a good rain, so our timing was perfect.
Growing Shiitake Mushrooms in a Bag!
All of this is recalled as I stand in my kitchen spraying water on a cloth-covered loaf of mushroom inoculated substrate awaiting the bloom that will turn into a treat for dinner. I am growing Shiitakes and it is as new as an experience as a 5yr in the woods!
The fact that Grandma Rhus spoke no English was of little consequence. Her broad toothless smile, her lovely wrinkled face and sparkling eyes communicated everything I needed to know. I was probably going to live, and we’d have a really good dinner for a bonus.
Grandma Rhus lifted leaves with her feet, rolled back logs, checked on all sides of the trees and pointed at the fungus we could pick and eat while shaking her head vigorously at the ones that could kill us. At the time, I didn’t know that the dark yellow mushrooms with the up facing bowl and deep wrinkles on the underside are called Chanterelles. Nor did I learn until later that Oyster is the name for the soft, brown, raggedy ones. Chickens are the ones hanging off the trees and Hens grow from the ground. I still don’t know the official name for the white round ones with the pink top that we called redtops. What I knew, however, was that when I got home my grandmother would make magic with them.
Cooking Mushrooms – Wild and Homegrown!
These days, people put mushrooms in everything from scrambled eggs to pasta, but in my house the recipe was simple. We chopped onions and scallions from the garden and threw them into a large iron frying pan to cook in butter on the woodstove. When the onions were fragrant, in went the cleaned and chopped mushrooms along with whatever herbs might be had from the garden – parsley and thyme most often with a little salt, (on special occasions we had bacon and bacon grease to change the flavor).
Back in my kitchen, it is certainly not the same, but I look forward to the domestic version of a walk in the woods. There is an excitement and anticipation of watching the mushrooms grow. It is different from the excitement of foraging, but exciting none-the-less. When the mushrooms are ready to harvest, I’m hoping I can reproduce the flavors of a long ago feast!
Written by Carol Koury