July 21st, 2013
see also video here

Alan Muskat, also known as the mushroom man, is in search of the elusive lactarius indigo, commonly called the indigo milk cap mushroom.

It’s out there in the woods somewhere, where unending rain this year has provided a bounty of mushrooms.

Among the cove hardwoods, the shortleaf pines, the sourwoods and oaks, Muskat, as he searches during his recent trip, is finding abundant boletes, a mushroom with pinpricklike holes in its gills. The variety includes the porcini, a mushroom coveted by chefs.

Muskat also is finding chanterelles, another much-loved culinary mushroom that comes in colors ranging from a shocking orange to the rarer black. Amanitas — with 300 species, some deadly — have sprouted everywhere.

“I’ve never seen so many,” Muskat said of this year’s harvest of chanterelles. At his home, close to 100 pounds were waiting to be cleaned.

That’s good news for the Princeton-educated Muskat, who makes his living selling mushrooms and other foraged food — and by leading foraging expeditions. He’s gained national exposure, including a spots in Southern Living and New Yorker magazines.

It’s also good for restaurants and people looking for mushrooms at farmers markets. Customers used to have to get up early to get the best mushrooms — but not this year.

People tempted to go pick their own mushrooms should be careful, Muskat cautions, and really should avoid it altogether without training.

Forest abundance

Muskat is a showman, and on one recent trip and search for the indigo milk cap, he wanted to break open the mushroom to display the milky, cobalt-blue liquid that would flow from its wound. It’s possible it’s hidden under all of the chanterelles, as abundant as they are this year.

Chanterelles, aromatic and earthy when cooked, can fetch $20-40 per pound.

“What’s cool about chanterelles is that they’re maybe the best mushroom, and they’re also one of the most common,” Muskat said while trimming the dirty end from a fist-sized golden chanterelle and placing it in the basket. “We assume that what’s valuable is most rare. It’s not true.”

Plucking a pallid and wiggly mushroom called a jelly baby poking from the forest floor, Muskat breaks it open.

“It tastes like gummy bears without the sugar,” he said, offering one up for a taste. A tiny worm wriggles out of the stem. Muskat shrugs. “Practically every mushroom has worms in it,” he said.

The rain brings out other creatures, too. The mosquitoes are swarming. And most of what Muskat picks from the forest floor has at least a few hitchhikers in or on it.

People, Muskat said, tend to be afraid of wild foods, even organic, farm-fresh foods, because they sometimes bear evidence of insect damage — or even actual insects.

“People are afraid of (whether) an animal pooped or peed on their food,” he said, chewing on the gelatinous mushroom, which is reminiscent of jellyfish in texture and not what many would consider pleasant eating.

“That will wash off, but GMOs and pesticides, systemic poisons that you can’t see, won’t wash off,” he said.

Foraging fanatics

Not everyone is afraid of wild foods.

A Waynesville landscaper recently sent Muskat a photo of what he thought was a 30-pound chicken of the woods mushroom, a variety that tastes like the name suggests.

He wondered if Muskat might want to buy it, but it was just a look-alike. Not poisonous. But certainly not delicious.

Such occurrences are becoming increasingly common, and it’s not just foragers who come calling.

“That was something that never happened before this year,” Muskat said. Foraging has “blown up.”

“And this is just a regular, lawn maintenance guy,” he said. “I remember 10 years ago, I put up signs and called all these lawn maintenance guys, and they were like, ‘What? You want mushrooms?’”

Wild mushrooms, the price of which is practically unaffected by the typical rules of supply and demand, seem an increasingly viable option for extra income — particularly when people are practically tripping over them during this unusually wet season.

Muskat, who said mushroom hunting is more sustainable than the majority of modern farming practices, thinks the foraging free-for-all is nothing to worry about. In fact, it might actually be good for the woods, he said.

“I think it’s necessary that people use the woods in order to value it,” he said. “Value, for us, starts with money. Even if these people are just in it for that, so is any (agricultural) business. You have to put it into perspective.”

Mushrooms, Muskat said, can be seen as the fruit of the mycelium, or vegetative part of the fungus. “It’s a seventh of the thickness of your hair, and it can go for miles — you’re just looking at the tip of the iceberg.”

When picking mushrooms, the mycelium stays intact and will continue to produce more mushrooms, especially if conditions are right, as they are this year.

Playing the odds

Muskat will lead a mushroom walk July 27 at Chimney Rock Park in Rutherford County, where an estimated 1,000 species of mushrooms can be found.

“We definitely have seen an increase in fungus this year due to the damp conditions,” said Emily Walker, education manager of the park. “It’s going to make the mushroom walk a lot better than it would be if we had drought conditions like we often see this time of year.”

William Dissen, owner of The Market Place restaurant in Asheville, used 2,000 pounds of wild mushrooms last year and is seeing a wealth of mushrooms pass through his kitchen again this year.

From painted boletes to beef steaks to chanterelles and cauliflower mushrooms, the fungus is abundant, he said.

“I do a lot of hiking and foraging, and the amount of mushrooms this year — from edible to nonedible — is crazy,” Dissen said. “It’s a bumper crop of chanterelles this year.”

Dissen went on a wild mushroom walk with Muskat last week.

“I could have walked away with 50 pounds of mushrooms, but we didn’t have the ability to carry them out,” Dissen said.

Even if all of the conditions seem right, mushrooms aren’t always where you look for them.

“It’s not like milk at the grocery store that’s just there whenever you want it, even in the best of times,” Muskat said.

As if to prove his point, the indigo milk cap remained stubbornly elusive.

“I’ll go mushroom hunting 10 times, and one of those times I’ll hit the jackpot,” Muskat said. “You’re basically playing the odds. It’s a lot like gambling. The better you get at it, the better the outcome.”