DAVID BERGELAND/Durango Herald
Chris Ricci has been on a wild mushroom quest for half his life. The now-32-year-old Bayfield mycologist first discovered fungi in the forests of Missouri at age 15 or 16, and since that first encounter, his passion for the science has really, well, mushroomed.
Nearly all of the two dozen hikers taking advantage of last weekend’s third annual mushroom festival at Durango Mountain Resort were first-time mushroom hunters. The eager explorers picked Ricci’s brain while picking their way through species of mushrooms that typically grow in alpine forest 10,200 feet above sea level.
“Where there’s an abundance of mushrooms, there’s a healthy forest,” the permaculture teacher and mushroom farmer said.
Ricci’s knowledge extends far beyond the San Juan National Forest. He has picked mushrooms on both coasts, in the Great Lakes region, upstate New York, in Appalachia and as far away as Africa.
On Thursday at Telluride’s Palm Theater, Ricci will talk about edible varieties of mushrooms that grow in eastern and southern Africa. The soft-spoken mushroom expert is one of the featured lecturers at Telluride’s annual mushroom celebration, a festival with an impressive 30-year history.
Saturday’s hike was for mushroom hunters of all ability levels. It was for the adventuresome, those curious about what might be found clinging to the underside of downed tree limbs or peeking through the moist soil of sun-dappled clearings among the pines.
For Jacquelene Brisson-Stahl, who recently graduated from Fort Lewis College with a degree in agricultural science, it was all about beginner’s luck. Brisson-Stahl picked between seven and eight pounds of mixed edible mushrooms, more than enough for a dinner party she hosted later that night.
On the way home from DMR, Brisson-Staahl purchased baseball-cut steaks at James Ranch and pulled together a salad from the farmers market to treat five friends to a plant-to-plate feast. Malbec and mushrooms were the stars.
“The abundance and the variety (of mushrooms) was the biggest surprise,” Brisson-Stahl said of the day’s take. Her basket contained Sarcodon imbricatus (hawk’s wings), corals, puffballs, Boletus edulis (porcini), Russula xerampelina (shrimp) and Lactarius deliciosus. She trimmed the batch, then sauteed them in butter.
Not all of her guests were adventurous enough to try all of the mushrooms, Brisson-Stahl said, but most savored the harvest.
Of the half-dozen varieties picked Saturday, the Lactarius deliciosus was the most plentiful, Ricci said, so most hikers snared a few. Puffballs dotted the forest and were among the easiest to spot, but many were past their prime.
Ricci rates Lactarius deliciosus a “4 on a choice scale of 1 to 5,” exceeded only by chanterelles and Boletus edulis.
“But that’s just my opinion,” Ricci said, emphasizing that mushroom taste is a matter of personal preference. “But you can know with confidence that they (Lactarius deliciosus) will come out after just about any rain.”
Nine-year-old Megan Faherty, daughter of Sean and Denise Faherty of Farmington, gently gathered the reliable but easily bruised variety that boasts an orangey-toned underside, yet blushes pale green where touched. She and her younger sister, Montana, kept up with her parents, curious about the names and edibility of most of the species.
“Don’t you think these will make great egg sandwiches, mushrooms scrambled in the eggs?” Megan asked more than once.
Ricci encouraged the first-time mushroom gatherers to be good stewards of the land. “Let the spores scatter,” he said, pointing to the spaces between the woven wicker bands of his collection basket.
Overripe mushrooms and those not ideal for eating were referred to as “food for the squirrels.”
“Mushrooms do a lot for us,” Ricci said of the symbiosis between humans and fungi. “They’re organic-matter recyclers. They clean and build the soil back up. They help in the cleanup of debris after logging, too.”
His passion for mushrooms was contagious. Many of the hikers already were scheduling their next outing or asking for recommendations regarding books about mushroom habitat and identification.
“Fungi are more closely related to animals than plants. They could survive a global catastrophe. Most do not need light to survive, and they tolerate extreme cold,” Ricci said, noting a few of the characteristics of fungi.
By early afternoon, the hikers had returned to the picnic tables at Dante’s, where they spread their loot like trick-or-treaters after a Halloween night on the town. Ricci conscientiously inspected their finds, fielding questions and demonstrating how to cut out worm damage.
“Don’t eat what you can’t identify,” Ricci said.
Getting to know each species of mushroom one by one helps novices to distinguish important characteristics.
“You want to know what to look for,” he said. “Get to know each one well, before you move on to collecting and identifying the next.”
Cross-referencing by consulting multiple books and Googling species provides a broader range of details because not every reference lists every characteristic. Seeing and reading about multiple examples of the same mushroom is useful.
Ricci attributes the growing interest in mushroom hunting to food trends and changes in eating habits.
“People are more interested in foraging and being self-reliant,” he said. “I think it’s a push back against the mainstream mentality of just getting all their food at the grocery store.”