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Whether entranced by the folklore, the gastronomic delight or the thrill of the hunt, Maritimers are drawn to woods and fields in search of wild mushrooms-assuming they're not felled by the fear factor, that is.

I am a nervous mycophagist. Most of us are.

Whether entranced by the folklore, the gastronomic delight or the thrill of the hunt, Maritimers are drawn to woods and fields in search of wild mushrooms-assuming they're not felled by the fear factor, that is.

Don't get me wrong. If you're someone who likes to eat wild mushrooms, which is what a mycophagist is, nervousness is advisable. In fact Nelson Poirier, a mushroom enthusiast and veterinarian in New Brunswick, says, "There is a phobia in the Maritimes about mushrooms, and that's good."

Nelson has a theory about our reluctance to gather and eat wild mushrooms. It has to do with our predominantly Western European ancestry. Unlike the long traditions of mushroom gathering across Eastern Europe and Asia, the Anglo Saxons are mycophobes, he says. "They're scared of mushrooms."

As a child growing up on a farm, Nelson had the job of rounding up cows; his other job was to pick every mushroom he found. "My mother would go through them and pick out the edible ones," he says.

But the vast majority of us are mycophobes rather than mycophagists-or amateur mycologists, who make a study of mushrooms. Take me, for example. Although I've been gathering Chanterelles to eat from beneath the same stand of old spruce trees on Nova Scotia's South Shore for about 10 years, I've never tried another species. Call it the fear factor, but with names like Destroying Angel, Fool's Mushroom and Death Cap for the poisonous fungi, it's not surprising that people are cautious about venturing into the unknown.

Perhaps ironically, the threat that steers a lot of people well clear of mushrooms is what turns people like Kent Mullin into obsessed amateur mycologists. "Just the study of the different poisons and how they react-how the body reacts-is interesting," says Kent, who lives in Stellarton, NS. Like Nelson, Kent has been interested in mushrooms since he was a kid, but Kent grew up in Bermuda, where very few mushrooms grow. He moved on to  Newfoundland and Labrador, where his interest in them lagged a little, until he finally settled in Stellarton 31 years ago. Ever since, "it's been a passion," he says, "a consuming hobby. I have bought every book I could get. I have 45 to 50 books. You can't have too many. There's always some detail that's missing."

Of course, mushrooms have fascinated humanity for countless centuries. The Egyptians considered them such delicacies that they forbade common people from collecting them. Others believed they had the power to lead the soul to the realm of the gods. The English nicknames alone reveal a morbid fascination that has given us some of the greatest labels in the language of wild things: Dead Man's Fingers, False Eyelash Cup, Toothjelly, Pig's Ears and King Alfred's Cakes. Their forms are just as bizarre as their names: umbrellas, jellies, shelves, bird's nests, earth stars, corals, brains and clubs are but some of the shapes fungi take on. Some even glow in the dark. The aptly named Jack-o-lantern shines brightly where it grows on the roots of certain trees, making it easy to spot after dark. Now that's the stuff of fairytales.

Caution-whether generated by fear of poisoning or by folklore-keeps mycophagists safe, but I feel ready to branch out. I want to roam the woods and fields of the East Coast and partake in what Russian author S.T. Aksakov calls "the third hunt"-along with fishing and traditional hunting-in his book Remarks and Observations of a Mushroom Hunter. In fact, the Russians are especially lyrical about this topic. Peasants associated a rich mushroom crop in August with a bountiful wheat harvest in fall, hence the adage, "If August is mushroomly, it will be breadly also." But the most inspiring Russian reference to mushrooms and their quest is from Vladimir Soloukhin in his Selected Works: "While you are sorting out the mushrooms you recall each one, where you found it, how you first saw it, how it was growing beneath this bush or that tree. Once again you experience the pleasure of each discovery, particularly if they were rare and fortunate discoveries. Once again all the images of the mushroom forest drift through your mind, all the secluded wooded spots, where you are no longer, but where the dark firs still lour and the crimson-touched aspens speak their language in low breath."

This sums up one of the most powerful motivators for me. It's not just the fascination with the bizarre and diverse world of fungi, or the folklore that surrounds them; not only the promise of rare and delightful gastronomic pleasures, though all of these are important to me. It's also the thrill of the hunt and the memories of the discoveries, the landscape and the secret places that I look forward to. My quest awaits.

Favourite fungi

"We eat a lot of them," Nelson Poirier says, talking about his family's three favourite mushrooms near their home in Shediac Bridge, NB. His favourite is the Horse Mushroom (Agaricus arvense), which grows in pastures or on other rich soil. "I was driving by a cemetery near Rogersville," he recalls, "and there were thousands of them, all the size of dinner plates. You could have fed half of Moncton with them." Some books do not recommend them because they can be confused in the button stage with several poisonous varieties. A close and safer relative is the Meadow or Field Mushroom (A. campestris), which most closely resembles the cultivated button mushroom we all know from the grocery store. The Meadow Mushroom is more flavourful than the Horse Mushroom (which can also be a little tough) but both are superior in flavour to their cultivated cousin.

The second of the Poirier family favourites is the Shaggy Mane (Coprinus comatus) also known as the Inky Cap or the Lawyer's Wig. "You can almost call this an urban mushroom," Nelson says, because it appears on lawns and along roadsides, especially where houses have recently been built.

Nelson likes the Shaggy Mane for two reasons. One is its abundance. "If you find one, there's a ton," he says. Kent Mullin concurs, saying he once found them growing across the ball field at the Michelin club near Pictou, NS. "They grew up through the gravel on the road and into a pile of rubble on the other side." In addition to their abundance, Shaggy Manes are appealing for their flavour, providing they are collected when very young before the caps expand and gills turn black. While frying does nothing for them, Nelson says, "the soups are just absolutely second to none." Note that some inky cap relatives of Shaggy Manes, such as C. atramentarius, contain antabuse-like compounds, which produce an adverse sensitivity to alcohol-it's advisable to not drink alcoholic beverages while eating them.

Pat Poirier, Nelson's wife, prefers the Oyster Mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus), though Nelson doesn't care for them himself because "they tend to turn slimy when cooked," he says. However, they are common, easy to recognize and popular. They grow anywhere that aspens and other hardwoods have been freshly cut. In fact, says Nelson, you can cut a piece of aspen, take it home and put it on your woodpile. Before long, you're likely to have your own crop.

Kent Mullin has his own favourite: the King Bolete (Boletus edulis), sometimes known as Cepe, Steinpiltz, Porcini or Stone Fungus. A favourite around the world, this giant flushes or fruits in cycles. In the fall of 2001, it was very rare. In 2002 "it was everywhere," Kent says. Last year was another bad year, so he's hoping that this year will produce a bumper crop. He looks for it in old pastures that are partially grown up with old spruce trees. He recalls one field trip he organized where a man on his first mushroom hunting expedition "picked a Bolete with a stem the size of a man's rubber boot. I'd never seen anything like it before," he says. Kent enjoys many in the Bolete family, though not all are edible-avoid those with reddish pores and those that stain blue when cut.

Kent occasionally comes across what is perhaps the most unmistakable species of all, the Giant Puffball (Calvatia gigantea). "These," he says, "slice up nicely and are good with eggs." He usually finds the giant, white rounded lumps that weigh up to 23 kilos at the bottom of sloped fields in damp areas. He doesn't bother with many of the other puffballs, though most are edible, because he finds their flavour mediocre.

Best Bets

The following seven mushrooms are edible, look fairly distinctive and are found throughout Atlantic Canada. Always adhere to the first two rules of the mycophagist:

1. When in doubt, throw it out and
2. When preparing wild mushrooms, keep back one of each type in case you become ill, so an expert can identify it and help to advise a doctor on treatment. To make a spore print, helpful in identifying mushrooms: Remove the stem close to the cap. Place the cap, gill/pore-side down on a white piece of paper and cover it with a glass or bowl. Some mushrooms, such as Oyster, have white spores, so using a strip of black paper under half of the cap is even better. After a few hours or even overnight, a print of the spores will be visible on the paper. Examine it for colour and arrangement, comparing the print with the description in your guide.

Chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius)
Description: Egg-yolk yellow with gill-like ridges that extend from under the cap down the stem. The cap is wavy, often trumpet shaped.
Spore print: Pale yellow.
Habitat: Often in clusters on the soil beneath old spruce, but also beneath hardwoods.
Season: Primarily mid-summer; also spring and autumn.
Characteristics: When moist, it feels like soft leather. Sweet flavour with an aroma like apricots. Watch for signs of insect damage.
Preparation: Excellent fried in butter or in an omelette; useful in a wide variety of dishes.

Giant Puffball (Calvatia gigantea)
Description: A large lump, white inside and out, resembling a ball of bread dough. The outer layer is thin and smooth, flaking away with maturity; the texture is like soft leather. This may be the largest of all fungi, though it's usually the size of a football.
Spore print: Brown, but if you wait to get a spore print, this mushroom is inedible.
Habitat: Usually grows alone in open fields, often at the bottom of a sloped meadow where it is damp. Its distribution is worldwide.
Season: Early summer to fall.
Characteristics: Best picked young when white and firm inside, though it disagrees with some people at any age.
Preparation: Good dipped in egg and breadcrumbs, then fried, or just sliced and fried with eggs. Not exceptional in flavour.

Hen of the Woods (Grifola frondosa)
Description: Large clumps of soft greyish brown, fan-shaped caps that overlap and are fused by a massive, fleshy stalk. They often resemble a small hen crouching among the leaf litter at the base of trees.
Spore print: White.
Habitat: At the base of standing trees, usually hardwoods and often oaks.
Season: Fall.
Characteristics: Best eaten young because they toughen with age.
Preparation: Great in soups and risottos or just pan-fried as a side dish with poultry.

King Bolete, Porcini or Stone Fungus (Boletus edulis)
Description: When young, it looks like a baked brown bun on a stalk, with pores beneath the cap.
Spore print: Olive brown.
Habitat: Mixed woods, often in old pastures that are grown up with spruce.
Season: Summer to fall, though often just before frost.
Characteristics: The most nourishing of all mushrooms, this sweetish mushroom tastes a little like hazelnuts. This species does not bruise blue when cut, like the inedibles in this family.
Preparation: Grill with steaks on the barbecue, dry and make into soups or sauces, or fry alone or with eggs.

Meadow Mushroom (Agaricus campestris)
Description: This is the closest wild relative to the grocery store variety. The gills are a distinctive pink at first, but darken with age. The flesh flushes pink when cut.
Spore print: Dark greyish reddish brown.
Habitat: Grassy areas with rich soil and often in circles, called fairy rings.
Season: Summer and fall.
Characteristics: Stronger flavoured than the grocery store button mushroom, and better flavoured than the Horse Mushroom, which is similar but much larger.
Preparation: Use as you would their store-bought cousins.

Oyster Mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus)
Description: Grows in clumps and is white to light grey or greyish yellow. Each cap is fan shaped and flat or shallowly depressed, with a short stalk beneath.
Spore print: White.
Habitat: On stumps, logs and trees. Often found in great quantities on newly cut aspen and poplar trees, as well as other large hardwoods.
Season: May and again in October.
Characteristics: They smell fragrant and fruity, reminiscent of anise. Watch for black beetles that sometimes feast on them.
Preparation: Sauté gently and serve in a creamy sauce, or dry for later use. Makes good chowder, soups and stews.

Shaggy Mane, Inky Cap or Lawyer's Wig (Coprinus comatus)
Description: Shaggy, white cylindrical cap with a rounded tip and wide, deep gills beneath. The cap turns pink at the margins.
Spore print: Blackish.
Habitat: Lawns, pastures, roadsides and woods where the soil is rich.
Season: Late fall.
Characteristics: Collect when young, before caps expand and gills turn black. No odour when raw.
Preparation: Best in creamy soups, but can be fried, especially for use in omelettes.
Note: Avoid alcohol when eating Inky Cap relatives such as Coprinus atramentarius.

This story has been vetted by an expert to ensure the information is accurate. However, readers are advised to err on the side of caution whenever collecting, handling and eating wild mushrooms.

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