BAKERSFIELD — I’ve never witnessed people more excited about fungi than those I met three Sundays ago.
A group of two-dozen people or so gathered just off the dirt portion of Waterville Road in Bakersfield, eagerly listening to MoTown Mushrooms fungi enthusiasts, mycologists and spouses Jason Bednarz and Monica Gallardo for how to hunt for mushrooms.
While probably half the group and I would normally be pushing a cart through a grocery store around 1:30 p.m. on a Sunday, here we all were, ready to forage for our own fungus. We planned to look along the Shattuck Mountain Trail, a 2.6-mile path on about 200 acres of property owned by Dorothy Allard and her husband, Bill Martin.
The land was put under a conservation easement with the Vermont Land Trust, and the trail was made with the help of the Bakersfield Conservation Commission, said Allard. The National Park Service helped fund some signs, too.
“We’re only here for a short time,” said Allard. “We want people to enjoy it [out here].”
She didn’t have to worry about that with the mushroom folks. As soon as Bednarz said “Go,” everyone plunged into the woods, muck boots on and baskets, buckets and bags in hand.
“Let’s go get some fungus,” said Bednarz.
On the trail
Everyone got about 10 feet into the trees before they began bending down for their first shrooms. Due to the old forest growth (facilitating mycelium, or mushroom roots) and a recent downpour on the property, the ground was ripe for foraging.
By far the youngest participant, seven-year-old Jackie Henderson, of Stowe, soon said, “Excuse me, I found a purple mushroom!”
Following encouragement from Bednarz to continue forward, the fungus hunters fanned out, the colors of their bright rain jackets peeking through the vivid green of the recently rained on woods. Bednarz and Gallardo stopped and examined various finds, doing their best to identify them.
According to Gallardo, definitively identifying a mushroom isn’t easy due to the vast number of species that grow in the Northeast. There are hundreds of the fungi, which are proliferated by spores and by the underground mycelium.
“There are so many – it’s pretty ridiculous,” she said. Of all of those, about seven to 10 species of mushroom are safely edible, the most common of which are chanterelle mushrooms.
And while those were the kinds people on the mushroom walk were trying to find, part of the fun is in the discovery – and learning which mushrooms not to eat, such as the little red one I picked up. Bednarz guessed it was a Russula, which can be slightly or very toxic.
“They’re not life-ending, but they’re [an] uncomfortable night on the toilet,” said Bednarz.
I quickly dropped it.
Bednarz and Gallardo are actually somewhat new to foraging – they began MoTown Mushrooms in Morrisville three years ago as a growing operation for local culinary businesses. This in itself, said Gallardo, is a process of discovery, since cultivating most fungi never seems to be a straightforward or replicable process from what happens in the woods.
“There are so many different components,” she said.
As MoTown Mushrooms got underway, Bednarz and Gallardo would walk their dog Pacha through the woods, and that’s when they grew interested in foraging fungi.
The walk in Bakersfield, for example, was the first foraging trip they’ve led. Bednarz said his own knowledge comes from studying books, joining Facebook mushroom groups and, of course, practice.
“It’s practicing and foraging for mushrooms and bringing them home and trying to make identifications,” he said. Bednarz pays attention to where mushrooms grow – on a log or the ground – as well as various other physical characteristics to try and ID them.
He added that before eating anything, just in case, “I’ll look at them for a few days. It’s kind of a roulette game you play.”
Bednarz has a local forager friend, no names mentioned, who isn’t so careful and will eat about 200 species of fungi. But that comes with some side effects.
“I know for a fact he’s mildly poisoned himself,” said Bednarz.
He added, “I’ve overly cautious, and that is the way to forage for mushrooms.”
Indeed. The shirt he wore – perhaps as a warning to the many new foragers around him – read: “All mushrooms are edible. Some only once.”
Whether it was the thrill of foraging for their own food or playing as sort of daredevil game: Will this poison me later, or not?, it was difficult for Bednarz and Gallardo to get everyone to head back when it was time to turn around.
Damien Garland, from Essex Junction, for instance, came for the lobster mushrooms. Bright orange in color, the edible fungus – recommended cooked with butter and herbs – is the result of one parasitic mushroom overtaking another.
“I love to eat mushrooms,” said Garland, whose wife, Chihiro, was with him. “There’s something gratifying about not having to go to a store and being able to see what’s out here.”
He added, “I don’t want to kill myself – I like going with someone who actually knows what they’re doing.”
Kristina Lynch, of Berkshire, said she felt the same way about finding a chaga mushroom, which is often recommended to be used in herbal tea for cancer patients, and those tasty chanterelles.
“Knowing that there is food ‘out there’ that you can get for yourself and you don’t have to go to the grocery store – [I] like the idea,” she said.
For Sharon Zecchinelli, a retired chef living in Enosburgh, the idea of going into the forest near her home and finding delectable chanterelle mushrooms to cook is much more inviting now that she kind of knows what she’s doing.
“I’ve never had the nerve [in the past],” she said. “I feel confident now that I know what a chanterelle is. I’ll go forage for them up in my woods.”
Young Jackie, of course – whose bucket was groaning by the time the group re-emerged by Watervillle Road – was all about the hunting part of fungi foraging. She managed to pick up a number of rotting or rather poisonous shrooms that Bednarz examined and identified at the end of the walk.
One of her mushrooms – a bolete species – stained blue when broken open and in contact with the air.
“You want to leave those alone,” said Bednarz.
“Yucky,” Jackie proclaimed.
For me, the best part of the mushroom walk was the hour and a half spent exploring in a breezy forest where, in each moment, there was an opportunity to discover something new. I’d take that over a Sunday trip to the grocery store – buying the same old things – any weekend.