Spring and its morels get all the limelight, but Northern Michigan chefs know that fall delivers a mushroom bounty that’s far more robust. We check in with Darren Hawley, both ’shroom hunter and chef, for tips on fall mushrooming and preparing these delectable rain-coaxed ephemerae.
Our September woods are themselves a delicacy, a sensorial banquet of smells. Musty loam, leaf litter and sun-baked pine needles cover the cooled carpet of the earth as it hoards raindrops and repurposes them in electric yellow chanterelles, glowing white shelves of oyster mushrooms and sulfur-speckled chicken of the woods.
This is a foodie’s Northwoods nirvana, and Chef Darren Hawley is combing the hillsides in Benzie County, collecting delicacies with a keen eye and a shroomer’s stoop. Each cap and stem, once cleaned of dirt and crawlies, is destined for foaming butter, simmering risotto or a savory wine broth. Hawley has been collecting and cooking with wild autumn mushrooms for 20 years, learning their essences and idiosyncrasies to find culinary dialogue that speaks to the nuance of each species.
We were lucky enough to join Hawley on a fall mushroom hunt, and he shares his wisdom in the forest and the kitchen as we explore the delectable universe of fall fungus.
While spring morels tend to monopolize our mushroom worship, autumn’s wild fungus scene offers an expanded bounty of delicious edible varieties found everywhere from pastures to pine forests. Depending on moisture and temperature conditions some fall species like lobster mushrooms may begin to appear in August and persist through October, whereas the ephemeral and coveted porcini may last only a couple of weeks.
The first whiff of fall sends savvy shroomers like Chef Darren into a state of obsessive standby, checking and re-checking favorite spots and scouting new ones whilst waiting for the right alchemy of rainfall and temperature needed to tease these tasty fungi from rotting logs and moss carpets. “If we have rain we’ll have mushrooms,” Hawley explains. “The fall edibles have a higher tolerance for temperature fluctuation so early frost is not an issue. I like to keep my eye on spots with rich humus deposits from decaying vegetation as these are some of the first places to find porcinis.”
While the skills to fill the skillet come from many hours of observant hunting, there is no substitute for a comprehensive field guide to ensure proper identification, zero in on respective habitats and avoid unplanned trips to the emergency room. Hawley recommends the Smithsonian Handbook of Mushrooms or All that the Rain Promises and More, by David Arora; both are available through most local booksellers. App designers have jumped on the edible fungus bandwagon, and there are several smartphone apps for mushroom identification.
When asked for some conventional wisdom on what mushrooms to avoid, Hawley stresses caution. “I stick to the obvious edible species that don’t have poisonous look-alikes. Even though some are edible, little brown mushrooms or generic white gilled species can be very difficult to differentiate from their poisonous cousins and should be avoided.”
The culinary allure of wild mushrooms has much to do with the level of umami, or savoriness, that they confer to food. Umami is present in foods high in glutamates and nucleotides, two types of amino acids, which create a somewhat nebulous brothy, or meaty, character in their interplay with other flavors; this, in addition to sweetness, sourness, saltiness and bitterness, is considered the fifth taste. Linger over a bite of wild mushroom croustade made with chanterelles or lobster mushrooms, and you too can enter the fifth dimension of taste.
“Mushrooms have a depth of flavor that is comparable only to meat,” says Hawley. “The flavors of subtler fall species like chanterelles, porcinis, and oyster mushrooms are best extracted by simple sautéing with butter or cream so that the essence of the mushroom can pervade the dish and play off its other ingredients.” With meatier more fibrous mushrooms like chicken of the woods or lobsters, Chef Darren likes to slice them thinly and add them to stock reductions, risottos or pasta dishes.
Early autumn, even more so than spring, is when we can best reap the edible rewards of our environs, and mushrooms make nearly all of it taste better. Shrooming can be a fruitful diversion from flushing game birds in young aspen groves, hiking hillsides and orchards or plying riverbends for fall salmon and steelhead. “I like to troll for rainbow trout in the fall,” Hawley says, “and fresh chanterelles sautéed with garlic, parsley and lemon juice are a perfect complement to the delicate flavor of the fish.”
If you’re a gourmand who favors the end more than the means, fear not, the North’s best local chefs and foragers are happy to do the heavy lifting; you need only to make a restaurant reservation to sit and savor wild fungi tossed with fresh pasta, sautéed alongside a piece of salmon or veal, or served up rustic and glorious in the company of heavy cream and crusty bread. When the first splashes of autumn paint the hillsides, grab your guidebook and take to the woods in search of edible fungi. We’ll be tailing Darren Hawley at a discreet distance, hoping he drops a chanterelle or two en route to the next mushroom patch.