Wednesday, August 1, 2012


Always follow the 100% rule!
Chef Joseph and Dr. Whitey
Chef Joseph and Dr. "Whitey" show off their bounty!

We leave the open highway
We scatter, ranging through
The forest gloom; we ramble
Ankle-deep in dew.

Through thickets deep in dark
The spears of sunlight rush
On brown and yellow mushrooms
Under every bramble bush.

They hide among the stumps
Where birds alight to rest
And when we lose ourselves,
The shadows guide our quest.

So brief these autumn days
And sunset solitudes,
The twilight has no chance
To linger in the woods.

Our bags and baskets burst
With gathered stock before
We leave for home: pine mushrooms
Make almost half our store.

Behind our backs the dark
Still forest walls arise,
And, beautiful in death,
The day flames bright and dies.

Going Mushrooming by Boris Pasternak

Baskets of Treasure
The famous author of Dr. Zhivago, Boris Pasternak (like most of his fellow Russians) was an avid wild mushroom hunter.  I found myself remembering his little poem about mushrooming recently when I was engaged in the same pursuit.  However, my mushroom foray was located on the Tennessee side of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park not the Russian countryside.  Other than the poet’s mention of autumn and his harvest of Pine Mushrooms (Tricholoma matsutake), I was struck by the similarities of the “rambles”.
Our ramble was in very hot July and our baskets of treasure were the colorful Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus sulphurus) and the highly sought after Chanterelle, actually two very similar species of Chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius and Cantharellus lateritious).
A single Chanterelle
A single Chanterelle

Ashville Mushroom Club
And when I say “our”, I’m referring to a recent foray with the Asheville Mushroom Club.  A quote from their website states “We are a diverse group of people whose common interest is to learn about and collect all kinds of fungi and to enjoy eating edible mushrooms we gather in the forest. Others cultivate fungi in their gardens. At our meetings, we hear from experts - many of them club members - about different aspects of fungi identification, folklore, cultivation and culinary preparation”.

Being with Dr. Harry “Whitey” Hitchcock is always an adventure
The host for the occasion and the source for my invitation was Whitey Hitchcock.  Oak Ridge resident and Anderson County Commissioner Dr. Harry “Whitey” Hitchcock has been studying, hunting, cooking and eating wild mushrooms for nearly 20 years. A retired science teacher and avid naturalist, he currently forages seasonal wild mushrooms and sells to restaurants as well as to individuals. Because finding just the right mushroom is an opportunistic exercise, being with Dr. Whitey is always an adventure – in the woods or in the kitchen. 

“I see a lot of my friends in the woods”.
Dr. Whitey has an extensive background that has prepared him for his wild mushroom expertise and reputation.  Whitey’s father was a forester who inspired his son to attend Forestry School after a stint in the service.  Whitey actually put in 7 years as a Field Forester for TVA.  The master forager comments that “I love the woods; it was my refuge as a child and part of who I am”.  “I see a lot of my friends in the woods”. I learned what he meant on our recent outing.  He introduced me by name to so many of his “friends”. Not just mushrooms but plant life of all kinds.  I was especially drawn to the ferns and mosses.  Fern beds are a favored spot for our very, very good friends – the Chanterelles (also Girolle in French, Galletti in Italian and Pfifferling in German).

Chanterelles on the ground
Chanterelles on the ground
It is indeed a thrill
The Chanterelles are so beautiful and generally easy to spot; their bright apricot color is highly visible against the green floor of the forest (once your eye becomes used to their form). It is indeed a thrill when you find your first one and then find another and another until your basket contains enough for a feast!  The “tie dyed” look of the Chicken of the Woods and their preference for growing on logs and tree is also easy to recognize

Chicken of the Woods on a log
Chicken of the Woods on a log
What a nice “lagniappe”
The beautiful Chanterelles and Chicken of the Woods that came home with me that day ended up being shared by the very lucky members of a Tuesday night cooking class at La Cucina.  Although, the class itself was entitled “Cooking with Fresh Herbs and Spices”, we had planned to offer a recipe for marinated mushrooms as well as a dish of deep fried mushrooms, anyway.  It turned out to be a perfect opportunity to use our newly harvested Chanterelles in the marinade as well as deep frying the Chicken of the Woods.  What a nice “lagniappe” that was to share with our cooking students.

The platter for class
“Pretty competent”
When I asked Dr. Whitey to describe his level of wild mushroom expertise, he answered simply that he is “pretty competent in identifying the mushrooms of his region and that he knows how to figure out specimens from other regions”.  He points out that he has never been sick from eating foraged mushrooms and that he always follows what I call the “100% rule”.  That is the rule that states that you must be 100% sure of your identification noting as one of my earlier mushroom instructor pointed out “99% sure can kill you”.

A class that sells out very quickly
Looking ahead at the calendar; on Tuesday, September 11, Dr.“Whitey” will be our guest at La Cucina to offer his class entitled THE WILD MUSHROOM FORAGER. La Cucina at Avanti Savoia is happy to welcome Whitey to share his expertise, harvest and delectable recipes with us and our students.  The menu will include: 
  • Chicken of the Woods curry on rice
  • Creamed Chanterelles with smoked ham over stone ground grits
  • Leek, Potato and wild mushroom (as available) Gratin
  • Special finds will be sautéed and served with eggs on toast points
  • Dr. Whitey will be in the woods several days before the class.
Mushroom selection will depend on weather and harvest.  Visit our Cooking Class schedule for more information.  We expect this to be a class that sells out very quickly.

Learn at the side of a qualified expert
Learning to identify wild mushrooms is something that one needs to learn at the side of a qualified expert.  Reference books are useful as a reference but not as a sole guide to identification.  Positive identification is not the only concern in harvesting wild mushrooms either.  Private property should be the site of foraging only with clear permission from the owner.

In the instance of harvesting on public land, make sure you know and understand whatever regulations apply (and stick to them).  My adventure with Dr Whitey and the Asheville Mushroom Club took place in a particularly beautiful and historic spot known as “Cades Cove’ located in the Smoky Mountains, an area known for its amazing plant and wildlife diversity.  Cades Cove is the single most visited spot in the most visited park in the National Park system.  The Cove is an isolated valley that was home to early settlers as well as the Cherokees, who called the place “Tsiya’hi” or “otter place”.  The otters have long since disappeared as well as permanent residency by anyone.

The Park Rangers take their jobs… very seriously
Even as heavily visited as this area is, one can still find vast quiet copses full of wildlife and yes, yummy mushrooms.  This extraordinary area is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. So, therefore very special rules govern the entire park to help preserve it.  The Park Rangers take their jobs as stewards of this park very seriously as Dr. Whitey and I noticed when US Park Ranger Jamie Sanders appeared on one of the shaded hillside that we were foraging.  After making sure that we knew the regulations and were adhering to them, we enjoyed an interesting conversation with her and she invited the good doctor back to the Ranger Station for him to assist her with some plant identification.  While we visiting, Ranger Jamie was helpful in providing me with the specific regulations concerning the collecting of mushrooms and other wild harvest.

Ranger Sanders holding Chicken of the Woods

From the Superintendents Compendium:
“…certain mushrooms (edible species only) may be gathered by hand for personal use or consumption (commercial use is prohibited).  The amount of fruits, berries, nuts and fruiting bodies of mushrooms that are authorized for collection shall not exceed 1 pound per person per day for each species, except for apples, pears and peaches.  The gathering of designated fruits, fruits, berries, nuts and mushrooms is prohibited within 200 feet of nature trails, motor trails, handicapped accessible trails and scientific and nature study areas”.

Enjoy your wild mushroom foraging but, be informed, be safe and be responsible.  Vivent les champignons sauvages et Bon Appetit Y’all.