Even as the leaves above turn red, orange and yellow, you might want to cast your eyes downward to find the real wonderment of the fall forest.
The next couple of weeks in Vermont bring with them some prime mushrooms growing out of the ground and on lower parts of trees, fall treasures like hen of the woods and lion’s mane, oyster mushrooms and chanterelles. It’s like hunting season for fungi.
Husband-and-wife mushroom hunters Ari Rockland-Miller and Jenna Antonino DiMare are the co-founders of The Mushroom Forager, which is what they do and what they teach other people to do.
In an interview this week, Rockland-Miller said it’s tough to say what he likes more about foraging, the hunting part or the eating — butter, garlic, cast-iron pan — part.
“The ultimate quandary, right?” he said. “I love both. I think they are both equally satisfying, but I think it might be the hunt. There are plenty of times when I leave an entire patch and not take anything.”
There is something zen about foraging, when you leave behind the hustle and bustle of the modern world and just walk in the woods and “get your eyes on,” as hunters say. Your eyes get so distracted in everyday life that when you start to purposely look for things, you begin to see so much more. Rockland-Miller said that after foraging, his eyes are so sharp he’ll find things like $20 bills laying around.
“Even after a couple of hours in the woods, once you find a mushroom you’re excited about, it really brings your mind quickly to a more mindful headspace,” he said.
When it comes to mushrooms in America, you simply can’t beat the Pacific Northwest region for sheer variety. But Vermont holds its own on the culinary end; pretty much the only thing you can’t find growing around here are the treasured black and white truffles.
“Other than that, you can find pretty much all of the coveted gourmet mushrooms in the world here,” Rockland-Miller said.
Close to home
Just as September is the time of the year when farmers harvest their crops and process their livestock, early fall is an excellent time to find some of those umami-packed culinary delights. For beginners, Rockland-Miller suggests starting close to home, in wooded areas you’re familiar with, wherever there’s a healthy, mature forest — the wetter the better.
And since some tasty mushrooms have potentially deadly lookalikes: “It’s best to start with a field guide and a camera, rather than a knife and your mouth,” he said.
Rockland-Miller and DiMare started The Mushroom Forager a decade ago, when he was managing a forest mushroom farm in the MacDaniels Nut Grove tree farm in Cornell, N.Y. The outfit leads foraging workshops in the spring, summer and early fall, and has an informative blog — he’s a writer and she’s a photographer, so the two talents marry well.
There are two scheduled workshops this weekend, one on Saturday morning in Essex, N.Y., and one on Sunday morning in South Hero, Vt.
The foragers also offer custom services and workshops, like social or office forays into your favorite forest; private surveys of your property with Rockland-Miller to see what you’ve got growing there; backyard shiitake mushroom growing installations; and tree identification workshops.
Rockland-Miller has been a mushroom hunter since he was a kid.
“I got my first field guide when I was 10, but never had a mentor, so I never ate them, just looked at them,” he said. “We’re a pretty mycophobic kind of culture.”
There’s a reason why some people are afraid of mushrooms — “myco” is the scientific root word when describing the species, which is neither plant, animal nor mineral — and that’s because some of them could kill you.
For instance, some of the most delicious mushrooms around, like matsutake and blewits, have “some pretty deadly lookalikes.” It’s best to have a good guide book, and it’s even better to bring what you find to a seasoned veteran to make sure it’s actually edible.
“There’s a saying,” Rockland-Miller recalled: “‘There are old foragers and bold foragers, but no old, bold foragers.’”
For more information about The Mushroom Forager’s upcoming foraging workshops, private sessions, and numerous “foragecasts” — forecasts for foragers, get it? — check out themushroomforager.com.