When you get into the habit of studying the forest floor, you start to notice endless culinary possibilities. This is especially true in Western North Carolina’s temperate rainforests, which offer some of the best foraging opportunities in the country.
As July kicks off and we enter the peak season for wild mushrooms (which typically runs until October), foragers, chefs and eaters can look forward to the unpredictable and often magical abundance of flavorful area fungi.
“Mushrooms are one of the most sustainable things imaginable because they just grow back,” says Alan Muskat, a longtime area forager, nature guide and overall fungus guru. “The mushroom is just the fruit of a fungus. It’s the equivalent of picking berries off a bush.”
Muskat, who has foraged hundreds of pounds of mushrooms annually for more than 75 area restaurants, also founded the organization No Taste Like Home, which teaches amateurs how to identify and cook wild foods. With nearly two decades of experience under his belt, Muskat says he has come to understand that the real essence of mushroom foraging lies in its unpredictability. Availability will vary depending on the amount of rain in the spring, the coldness of winter and if the climate has been impacted by drought or fire.
“It really ties you to the unpredictable rhythms of nature,” says Rhubarb and Benne on Eagle chef John Fleer, who buys 10 to 20 pounds of wild mushrooms per week from local foragers as the season gets underway. “It’s both fun and challenging that every year seems to give us a different calendar of bounty. The first year we opened, hen of the woods was just incredibly abundant. But we haven’t had a great year for hens since then. Last summer was amazing for chanterelles — probably the best our foragers had ever seen. The summer before, chicken of the woods were massively bountiful.”
That uncertainty, he continues, keeps chefs on their toes. “It gives you the chance to delve into what to do with an abundance of that certain kind of mushroom. You get to miss and pine for the ones that don’t have as good of a year.”
The Market Place chef and owner, William Dissen, is another mushroom aficionado who finds much menu inspiration from wild ingredients. He takes his kitchen staff members on an annual foraging trip so they can learn about the ingredients firsthand and estimates that he uses 3,000 pounds of foraged fungi in his restaurant per year.
“In this area, there’s so much wild food; it blows my mind every time I’m out in the woods. It’s definitely inspiring,” says Dissen.
Fleer and Dissen both report that chicken of the woods has already made its way into their respective kitchens this season, a signal that many more fungus varieties will pop up soon. Chicken of the woods, recognized by its sulphuric yellow and orange hue and overlapping bracket structure, is famous for its flavor, which is delightfully similar to chicken.
Up next? Chanterelles. One of the most prized edible mushrooms, they are fragrant and fleshy with remarkable culinary appeal. Perhaps the best-known chanterelle variety is golden, but don’t sleep on its cousin, the black trumpet (also known as the trumpet of death), which packs an intense and woodsy flavor with a hint of something sweet. There’s also the cinnabar-red chanterelle, which is a bit small and dainty but has a beautiful hue that ranges from pink to deep orange and carries a fragrance similar to that of the golden chanterelles.
“What I like about them — and what’s funny about them — is that they’re very common,” says Muskat. “They’re considered one of the best, if not the best, in terms of flavor. Rather than what we tend to assume, what is good in life is not necessarily rare. I think that’s a good lesson.”
Muskat also adds that except for the cinnabar-red variety, chanterelles generally have flavor notes of apricot. “One of the tricks is to put in fresh or dried apricot to bring out that aspect of chanterelles,” he says.
Like with most mushrooms, you can never go wrong with sauteing chanterelles in garlic, butter, salt and pepper — but there’s definitely room for creativity. “In the past, we’ve had them consistently as a side dish just roasted in a wood oven with thyme and butter,” says Fleer. “We also had them in ‘pasta-ish’ dishes, and we did hot pickle a fair amount of them.”
The hot pickling process, Fleer explains, involves white vinegar, tamari, thyme, bay leaf and mustard. The mushrooms are cooked just enough to take away the raw texture while also preserving them.
In July and beyond, Dissen looks forward to honey mushrooms, which, as their name might suggest, are slightly sweet, dense and chewy. There are also lobster mushrooms, which despite their name are actually no longer actually mushrooms, as the fungus has been overtaken by a parasitic but flavorful mold. The transformation leaves the fruit with a slight flavor and aroma of shellfish.
For those looking to flex their culinary creativity, Muskat recommends the black-staining polypore, which has a shape similar to a chicken of the woods but lacks its meaty flavor and texture. While it’s usually a bit too chewy for an entrée, you can use it as you would a bay leaf to create potent flavor in a dish.
Interested in finding these fungi, but not sure where to start? Muskat says to phone a friend.
“Find someone who knows what they’re doing and go out with them. Or join a club. Fact is, it’s very dangerous to do it on your own despite reading an article or a book,” he says. “I want local people to know that my guide service is pay-what-you-can. We charge tourists, but we don’t need to be charging locals that usual price to learn.”
He adds, “Finding mushrooms doesn’t happen based on focused attention, it’s based on keeping your eyes open. I’ve picked giant chicken of the woods in the middle of Asheville. I’ve seen a $20 bill in a bush. You never are going to know what you’ll find, just keep your eyes open.”