Mushrooming and Chanterelle Dreams, Amanita Nightmares

Foraged wild foods these days have risen from curious oddity to standard ingredients on many epicureans’ cutting boards. And to those epicureans, few wild foods can outshine mushrooms. For most serious gastronomes reading this, wild edible mushrooms are more than likely an enticing ingredient, but of all the palatable species (most “edible” mushrooms, of course, simply aren’t worth the trouble of bringing home because of their poor taste or texture), most mushroom hunters will stick to just a few of the more reliably recognized ones. If this describes you, read Greg Marley’s new book Chanterelle Dreams, Amanita Nightmares.

Marley is an indefatigable fixture among the mycophiles of New England (he has made Maine his home since 1981). He routinely lectures on the topics of wild mushrooms and medicinal plants and fungi, leads mushrooms forays, and writes prolifically. His previous book, Mushrooms for Health: Medical Secrets of Northeastern Fungi (2009), was a welcome addition to any mycophile’s shelf devoted to medicinal mushrooms; it was concisely written, easy to read even for beginners, and well priced. With Chanterelle Dreams, Marley has turned his attention—and pen—to the gustatory side of mushrooms. And lore. (You’ll buy the book for the former, and read it over and over for the latter.)

Chanterelle Dreams will appeal to anyone, no matter the level of knowledge about mushrooms and other fungi. This book will have special appeal to beginners. The outset of the book walks the reader through wild mushrooming basics, with sections on “Guidelines for the New Mycophagist” (if you’ve never encountered the word, you are probably a newbie), “The Foolproof Four” (four groups of edibles all newbies should start with because of their reliability and ease, both in identification and preparation), and a “Few Facts About Edible and Poisonous Mushrooms” (a frank but not alarmist discussion about what you may be about to put into your mouth).

Marley then forays deeper into the gastronomic forest with more exciting wild edibles: there are chapters on Chanterelles, King Boletes (porcini), and the wild Agaricus species (brethren to the humdrum white button mushroom and the only slightly more haute cremini and portobella). Along the way, Marley points out inedible mushrooms that could be confused with those you’re pursuing (“lookalikes”) and how to know the difference: morels and false morels, jack o’lantern mushrooms and chanterelles, Amanita species that resemble Agaricus species. And in addition to tips on preparation, Marley also discusses methods of preservation (drying, freezing, canning)—familiar methods to the wild food enthusiast, though not all methods apply to all mushrooms. There is also exciting information on ways to preserve your super abundance (should you be so lucky), like making mushroom duxelles paste.

I couldn’t resist the title of the second section of the book, “Poisonous Mushrooms, Not as Bad as You Fear,” and so this is where I began reading. Common sense advice is simply put: “the perceived risk far exceeds reality”. Marley points out that on average one or two persons die from eating poisonous wild mushrooms in the USA each year, but that this is far less than from ingestion of peanuts, lightning strikes, bee stings, and probably even death from all three happening simultaneously to the same person. Still, myths and sensationalism persist in our culture, in part due to just how toxic the nasty ones are. Put in terms of “standard doses” (e.g. 320 mg of caffeine in a single 16 oz serving of Starbucks coffee), it takes only 6 mg of Amanita mushroom toxin to kill 50 percent of those consuming it. And a single Amanita phalloides mushroom can easily weigh 10 times that amount!

The final third of the book is a collection of brief chapters devoted to a number of disparate topics. Psychedelics are covered–their chapter on the use, then abuse, and now once again research into the legitimate medical use of hallucinogenic mushrooms, is among the most interesting. Their historic link to religions of several ethnic groups around the world throughout history adds to their mystique.

The remaining chapters cover fungi in the ecosystem, truffles, bioluminescence, fairy rings—which mushrooms make them and why (spoiler alert: it may not really be due to fairies dancing on the lawn after dark!)–and humongous fungi, the honey mushrooms. Though I would have liked to read more about these curious kinds of fungi (or possible have even read an entire book on them!), the overall value, readability, and effort that went into Marley’s study is entirely worth the read. Chanterelle Dreams is an excellent work and one that seasoned mycophiles will want to pick up. It’s also a must-read for beginning mushroom hunters.

[Editor's note: mushroom lovers in the Bay Area, don't miss Kitchen Table Talks tonight about mushroom cultivation and cooking at Viracocha in San Francisco. More info here.]

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