cookbook cover

Mushroom Man

from The New Blue Ridge Cookbook (Globe Pequot, 2010)

Alan Muskat is nationally known as The Mushroom Man. He bubbles with mushroom facts and folklore, waxing enthusiastically about their tastes and textures. He calls himself a "mythic mycologist," "troubadour of the toadstool," and "epicure of the obscure."

Muskat makes a living foraging for wild mushrooms. He leads walks ("for the love of fungus") into the wilds of Asheville's cityscape and the Blue Ridge. Participants learn to identify wild mushrooms that are edible or used for medicine as well as the toxic ones to watch out for. His focus is for folks to sample rather than trample the toadstools. He teaches cooking classes and hunts professionally for local chefs. In early spring he harvests morels; in midsummer, chanterelles; and in the fall, chicken of the woods -- a total of several hundred pounds of wild mushrooms per year that he sells to about thirty restaurants. He has also written the book Wild Mushrooms:A Taste of Enchantment.

Westem North Carolina is one of the most ideal places for mushrooms, he says, because of its biodiversity. And it's not overrun with mushroom hunters. The best time for harvesting is during mid-July through October. Mushrooms like moisture, so he goes out a few days after a rain and finds many species just popping up both up in the mountains in mature woods as well as people's compost heaps or front yards.

Most fungi are symbiotic, giving and taking from their host, usually a tree's root. And because the fungus that makes mushrooms will remain after you pick its "fruit," mushroom hunting is sustainable. “It's like picking an apple from a tree," Muskat says. Alan finds chanterelles under the canopy of conifers and broad-leaved trees while lobster mushrooms prefer hemlocks and pines. Morels like old apple orchards, tulip poplars, and burnt-over woods. Lobster mushrooms are named for their bright red color and mild lobster flavor; chicken of the woods, says Muskat, really does taste like chidten breast. Chanterelles have a firm texture and a faint smell of apricots. Maitake or hen of the woods has a meatier and nuttier flavor than its cousin, the "chicken." And then there's honey mushrooms, with a tangy yet nutty flavor. Alan also likes young reishi mushrooms found in June.

always cook mushrooms, says Muskat, because their cell walls are indigestible when raw.  "Nor can your body get to the nutrients." And many edible species also have toxins that are destroyed when cooked. Also be aware of pollution, he warns, because mushrooms soak up environmental toxins.

Fortunately, only a handful of wild mushrooms are toxic, and these are easily identifiable with a little experience. Beginners should always learn from a seasoned forager, not books, and there are clubs across the country. "The only good field guide," says Muskat, "is one with two legs."