Some resemble a mutant head of cauliflower; others appear like colourful coral or large white boulders. Despite their alien looks, wild mushrooms beckon a growing number of forest-to-fork foragers in North America who embrace the flavour and health benefits of fungi.
The Alberta Mycological Society has identified 7,000 species of fungi in Alberta, but its members continue to find new ones every year. Of that number, so far only about 55 are edible. “But just because they’re edible doesn’t mean they’re incredible,” says Eric Whitehead, owner of Untamed Feast, an Alberta harvester and supplier of wild mushrooms. “There are approximately four that will kill you and a bunch that can make you sick. There are only 10 to 15 worth harvesting.” The following is a seasonal list of some of the more “incredible edible” wild mushrooms found in Alberta.
NOTE: In the September issue, on page 24, we mistakenly published the incorrect photo for the Red cap or Northern Roughstem photo. The one pictured is a Amanita Muscaria and should not be consumed. Keep in mind that you should not be eating wild mushrooms unless you are well-informed or have checked with an expert beforehand as the effects can be harmful.
The saffron milk cap is typically found under spruce trees. Its stem is light orange, while its upturned cap is a brighter red-orange that can grow up to 15 cm wide. This hollow stemmed fungi oozes saffron-coloured milk and can stain green when bruised. Although it can be sautéed in garlic and olive oil, this mushroom tastes best when pickled, according to Russian and Polish tradition, perhaps due to its slightly crunchy texture.
The meadow mushroom is a popular favourite and very similar to the white button variety found in grocery stores. They pop up in many grassy areas like meadows, golf courses and lawns. Their cap is white, dry and smooth, and their underside has dusty-pink gills. But be aware that this one stains brown while poisonous look-alikes stain yellow, orange or red. These fungi can be found in the spring, summer and fall.
Velvet foot is known as the ‘winter mushroom’ or Japanese enoki. But the latter is a cultivated version that yields small, clusters of white, slender-stemmed mushrooms with tiny caps. The wild version has a smooth, slimy caramel-coloured cap measuring one to five cm wide with a distinct dark, velvety stem, and is considered more flavourful than its pale Japanese cousin. Commonly found on elm trees, it grows when nothing else does, giving fungi foragers something to hunt all year round.
The black morel, or any morel for that matter, is always a highly prized find, thanks to its coveted earthy, meaty flavour. The black morel possesses a distinctive cone-shaped, brownish-black honeycombed cap atop a smooth, white, hollow stem. The elusive morel is best found in the early weeks of spring when the soil temperature is about 10° C, and when blue violets appear at the base of evergreens, aspen and poplars.
The shaggy mane is a white, egg-shaped mushroom that can easily pass for a large shaggy Q-tip. They usually grow scattered or grouped together in grassy areas. Pick only the young, fresh ones and use almost immediately because the older ones start to ink and turn black. Avoid picking any manes growing near busy roadsides where they could have absorbed pollution and toxins. The shaggy mane has the texture of fish and is delicious in sauces, soups and stews. But pairing it with alcohol can produce very sickening effects.
Chicken of the woods, not to be confused with hen of the woods, is identifiable by its thick, fleshy, fan-shaped petals in vibrant candy corn colouring. It grows in layers within large clusters on or at the base of dying trees. It appears in spring and summer and is a great substitute for protein in any dish, as it possesses a meaty flavour that some say tastes like chicken.
While the morel may be called the king, the golden chanterelle is sometimes referred to as ‘the queen’ of the forest and just as difficult to find. The deep yellow, trumpet-shaped mushroom with a cap up to 15 cm wide is a firm, fragrant favourite with its light apricot flavour. Unlike its poisonous look-alike, the chanterelle always grows on the ground, never on wood or at the base of a tree. They usually appear in the summer and fall.
The red cap or northern roughstem is so popular that a local group lobbied the government to name it an official emblem of Alberta. Commonly found under poplar and aspen trees, it has an orange-red cap with a spongey underside atop a rough, white stem that turns blue when you cut it in half. It’s touted as a very tasty mushroom especially after it’s dried.
The king bolete is a very common find in Alberta’s evergreen forests in the summer and fall. Its smooth cap ranges in colour from reddish-brown to caramel to dark brown and sits on a white or yellow stem. It has an off-white underside that consists of spongey looking pores, not gills. This mushroom is said to taste particularly good when dried and used in soup. It’s safe to eat if it doesn’t bruise blue after being cut.
The hedgehog mushroom or sweet tooth is a favourite because of its similarity to the chanterelle in looks and aroma. But instead of gills or pores, the hedgehog has tiny spikes or teeth on the underside of its tawny-orange cap, along with a solid white stem. They can be found in evergreen and hardwood forests in the summer and fall.
The comb tooth mushroom is a white fungus that resembles a shaggy head of cauliflower. Between 4 and 10 inches wide, its stalk is attached to logs or on tree trunks of conifer trees. This one is tastiest when fresh and white. Avoid any that are turning brown as the flavour turns bitter and sour.
The western giant puffball is a white, firm oval ball that can grow up to eight feet in diameter. It resembles a lump of dough or a white boulder. It has no stem or gills and grows in open, grassy, dry areas. August in Alberta is usually deemed puffball season. Only go for a firm, fresh white puffball. Do not wash with water as it will turn soggy. Merely peel off its skin, and cut it in half to ensure the interior is uniformly white. Toss it if it’s brown as it can be toxic.