Foraging From Field to Kitchen
By Jacqueline Sheehan, Photos by Dan Little
Western Massachusetts offers a fertile environment for wild mushrooms, but foraging for them requires guidance from experts. I had studied with a mycologist in Oregon decades ago, but my delight in foraging for mushrooms, as well as my desire to cultivate them, was rekindled by mushroom farmer and mycologist Paul Lagreze.
Lagreze began formally studying mushrooms 25 years ago after taking a class at UMass. He then joined a mycology club to learn from life-long enthusiasts. His initial motivation, like mine, was culinary. “I liked the taste of wild mushrooms,” he says.
I attended Lagreze’s Shiitake Log workshop at his Colrain home last spring. We learned to inoculate freshly cut logs by drilling holes in them, filling the holes with shiitake spores, and sealing them with hot wax. Later, Lagreze took us the wooded acreage he uses to let his vast supply of inoculated logs snooze for a year before they are ready to burst forth with mushrooms. I took my log home to wait for the explosion of mushrooms next spring and immediately signed on for his class on foraging and cultivating mushrooms this fall at Greenfield Community College.
But what was equally intriguing was meeting Lennie Kaplan, a lifelong mushroom forager from Belarus who showed up at Lagreze’s spring workshop to share. Kaplan brought a sampling of culinary mushroom creations to the workshop, the likes of which I had never tasted before. My entire repertoire of mushroom recipes consisted of variations on sautéing in butter with a splash of white wine—which is nothing to sniff at—but after tasting Kaplan’s preserved mushrooms, I had to learn more. He agreed to let me observe while he processed mushrooms, lots and lots of mushrooms, at his home on the outskirts of Westfield.
Two vats of mushrooms were already cut and boiling on the stove by the time I arrived, and more chopped mushrooms filled a colander in the sink. Kaplan was processing three different varieties of boletes. As he talked about foraging, he continued to wash the mushrooms, stirring them in the colander. Boletes are distinguished by their thick sponge-like tube layer rather than gills (the soft flute-like structures that circle the stem beneath the cap of white or portobello mushrooms you might buy at the store).
Kaplan’s mushroom foraging takes him from Massachusetts, through Vermont, into Canada and down through the state of New York. He began foraging at the age of 5 or 6. “Everyone in Russia, Belarus, and generally all of Europe hunts for mushrooms,” he says.
According to Kaplan, when the conditions are right for mushrooms to push their way from the earth, entire busloads of people in Belarus descend on the hillsides and forests. The popular art and sport of foraging is far less common in North America, except for pockets of local experts.
“Here, men hunt for game and fish for sport,” says Kaplan, shrugging. “In Russia and Belarus, men hunt for mushrooms.”
After processing his boletes, Kaplan served up some mushroom soup. The ingredients included mushrooms, barley, and finely chopped potatoes. He sprinkled on dried chives that he had frozen from his garden. And the final touch? A hearty dab of sour cream. “It always tastes better with sour cream,” he says.
Lennie Kaplan’s Recipes for Preserving Mushrooms
My favorite go-to recipe for most mushrooms still veers toward the sauté method. The butter helps so much. But when you are a true forager, you must deal with larger quantities of mushrooms and develop a variety of ways to preserve them.
This is what Kaplan was doing the day that I visited. He had a mix of three different varieties of bolete mushrooms that had been rinsed multiple times, and cooked in a large pot on the stove top. He later added vinegar, salt, and spices—a palm-sized mound of salt or a free pour of vinegar as his taste buds dictated. Kaplan always uses bay leaves, generally adds black peppercorns and allspice, “And sometimes coriander and cloves.” (Believe me, the man does not write down his recipes.)
The mushrooms are done cooking when the bay leaves have softened. Then, he processes them in quart and pint jars.
Kaplan uses electric dehydrators to do the job. He suggests using mature mushrooms for drying because their peak flavor survives drying the best. Once the mushrooms are dry, he stores them in plastic bags.
Rinse and cook as you would when marinating, but then, says Kaplan, skip the vinegar and only use only salt and spices. And, just in case you were wondering, “Never add sugar. No sugar!”
This is generally an easier method and includes simply sautéing (that’s where I come in) or boiling, then freezing in plastic bags. But it is too labor intensive for large amounts of mushrooms. If you are an expert forager like Kaplan, this is not practical because you have sacks of mushrooms that need processing immediately. (Though he does sauté and freeze one of his favorite mushrooms, matsutake, in smaller quantities.) Once frozen mushrooms have been defrosted, the taste should be identical to fresh fungi.
Looking for Local Mushrooms?
New England Wild Edibles