I love early autumn. Being in the woods anytime of year is fantastic, but autumn always seems a little bit extra special, Maybe it's the easy though abrupt way we slide into it from summer. It's such a comfortable transition, from cargo shorts and tee shirts to denim jacket and bluejeans. I can still enjoy my morning coffee on the porch without the extra layers that winter demands.
Certainly the smell of the autumn woods plays a part, with its heady perfume of earth and decaying leaf matter. No denying memory and personal history either. Fall was when, as a little kid, I looked forward to squirrel hunting with my Dad, as well as the peacefulness of bowhunting by myself when I got older.
It's the time of year when things are easier to spot, as thick green underbrush and canopy give way to a sparser landscape of browns and grays. It's also the season when new aisles open up in Mother Nature's grocery store, with nuts, fruits, berries and, maybe my favorite, autumn mushrooms. Puffballs, honey mushrooms, shaggy mane, buttons, pig snoots, maitaki, chicken mushrooms and more. Mushrooms are the ultimate treasure hunt edible.
This weekend I found myself alone in the house as wife and kids were off doing their own things. The urge to get into the woods is always stronger when I've got "me time" like that, so I headed just outside of town to my friend Tom's place in the country. Tom's been a friend for many years, since our junior high school days on the wrestling team. He's a rural fella who can build anything and do it with a good measure of artistic flair. He built his own house, using a lot of reclaimed and repurposed materials, on the edge of a sweet little woods that has been in his family for quite a while. It's a wood that has always been good for edibles of both the plant and animal kind, and in fall I especially enjoy its reliability for squirrel and mushrooms.
So, yesterday I drove out on a morning with a sky that promised rain at some point. Nobody was home when I arrived so I left a note in the door and began walking the forest with eyes to the ground. A few times along the way I would stop and just breathe in the rich aroma of damp forest earth, rotting tree stumps, pine needles and still falling oak leaves. I got excited when I found 4 or 5 very small Aborted entoloma, what Tom calls pig snoots, at the base of a small tree (Pig snoots is the more colorful local name for the mushroom that I first heard from Tom when he showed me this mushroom many years ago.)
I also found an impressive layer of viable acorns on a trail beneath one tall oak. Even though mushrooms were my intended target the ease with which I could harvest the nuts was enough to convince me to change my focus for a little while. Most of them had begun to sprout but the tiny curling tendrils that poked through the shells would not adversely affect the quality of the nutmeats inside. I cracked a couple open with my teeth, chewed the cream-colored meat, and found them to be solid and not overly bitter. I took 20 minutes and gathered about a half-gallon worth. I'll share the processing routine for acorns in another post soon.
Not far from the acorn spot I came upon a small area with a few rotting stumps, around which were dozens of honey mushrooms (what folks around here also call buttons ). Most of them were in advanced stages of development, with wide, flattened caps, but there were a number of smaller young mushrooms mixed in as well. I picked a few handfuls of all sizes.
Continuing my directionless meandering I stumbled upon a really exciting sight: Three giant puffball mushrooms, just a few feet from one another, each about the size of a small volleyball. I also spotted a couple of smaller puffballs several yards away. I left the small ones but picked the three large ones and tried to gently lay them in my bag so as not to crush the pig snoots and honey mushrooms already in there. Only two would fit in the bag so I carried the third and made my way back to the house to see if Tom had arrived home yet.
He and his wife Barb had returned, and Tom and I decided to go back into the woods where he promised to show me a spot that had always produced a good amount of pig snoots/aborted entoloma. Sure enough, as soon as we got there we began finding the odd-shaped, white mushrooms poking through the leaf litter. We picked two or three dozen before moving on to the spot where I had found the honey mushrooms, where Tom confirmed their identity and we picked a dozen or so more. It's always a good idea to have another experienced mushroomer confirm what you've got, and as Tom is the one who first introduced me to honey mushrooms (buttons) I felt good about his expert confirmation. The sky that had been threatening a couple hours earlier finally opened the gates and we got absolutely deluged. I was rain-soaked down to my underwear, so we called it a day, and a pretty successful day at that..
When I got home I cleaned everything and began cracking acorns. This morning I fried a handful of mushrooms with eggs and began drying several more in the oven for storing long-term. I'm planning to head back out after the Packer game today, to help Tom cut some firewood and to hunt for more mushrooms. I'll also make a post in the next few days on identifying and processing these particular varieties of mushroom. Right now, it's almost kick-off and the Packers need my attention. Go Pack!