Category Archives: wild foods

Springtime Mushroom Hunt (and Wild Mushroom Fritatta)

Springtime may be all about wildflowers and clover and, well, see that last post — but one of the things I look forward to the most when the weather warms is a bit less greeting-card-perfect and a little more… strange: the Spring mushroom season! Unlike the showy blossoms and greenery, mushrooms are subtle and secretive; they won’t jump out at you with a riot of skyward-reaching stalks and stems, with Technicolor hues on a grand scale. You have to look for them.They’re tiny, experts at camouflage. You could walk in the woods every day without the faintest inkling of the tremendous variety of fungi surrounding you.

I’ve been hunting for mushrooms for only a couple years, and I’m continually amazed by the diversity of species we see even right here on our little farm. Even more fascinating is the way a mushroom can look totally unremarkable at a glance, but then be so intricate and beautiful if you take the time to study it up close. I have to thank my friend Thea, mycology-expert and forest-sprite extraordinaire, for introducing me to the mushroom world, and to David Arora’s fantastic field guides (a must if you want to know just what it is you’re looking at). Here are a few of the many fungi that show up in our area — see if you can spot them next time you’re out wandering!

Left: A member of the Lactarius family is easily identified by the “milk” that exudes from its flesh when scratched or broken. (Which particular Lactarius it is, however, is a little more challenging to discern!)

Right: One of my favorite little mushrooms, Hygrophorus chrysodon. The name chrysodon comes from the Greek for “golden-tooth” — a wonderfully poetic description for the bright-yellow flecks that dust its cap and stalk.

The wonderful thing about mushroom-hunting is that you’ll be taking a perfectly civilised walk in the woods, and then next thing you know, you’re lying on the ground in the mud, not entirely sure of how you got there, nose-to-nose with this:

Such is the weirdly charismatic nature of fungi. This little guy is absolutely electric! I suspect it’s some kind of Hygrocybe, but I couldn’t bring myself to pluck it for a more detailed inspection. That parrot-green hue, by the way, is quite true to life!

Left: The convoluted, velvet-black cap of Helvella lacunosa, the Fluted Black Elfin Saddle. They’re quite common around here in springtime. Spotting them among the leaves is good practice for finding their delectable relative the Morel!

Right: another common one in our area, Laccaria laccata, known as the Lackluster Laccaria, which I suppose it is when compared to its violet cousin L. amethystina. Both have long, tough stalks, jaunty domed caps, and white spores.

Some mushrooms are wildly flamboyant, like these turkey tails; others are nondescript little dots in the leaves…

I love this particular copse of manzanitas. The bees are crazy about them, too — you can stand under the arching branches and listen to the most incredible buzzzzzzzzz overhead. When we open the hives this time of year, there is often a distinct manzanita-blossom fragrance that drifts out — nectar from the blossoms the bees have been so busily visiting.

Another devotee of the manzanita grove: the cheekily-named Cowboy’s Handkerchief! The moniker is an apt description of their slimy, snow-white caps. Hygrophorus eburnius is a more respectable name for these guys, but not quite as, ah, colourful…

My mushroom-hunting route follows a deer trail through a particularly damp, shady north slope of the woods: a perfect environment for fungi, as well as for lush mosses and lichens. Ferns, too. Oh, to have a good guidebook for each — but then I’d be lost in the woods all day, identifying everything in sight….

But, as much fun as it is to spot and study all these fascinating denizens of the forest floor, the best mushroom hunts are the ones that end with a basket of edibles! What a delight to stumble across this trove of blewits: Clitocybe nuda, a fabulously-hued and absolutely delicious wild mushroom that grows like a weed in the woods around here. I wasn’t expecting to find many this late in the season, so for once I didn’t bring a basket — maybe the Russian saying is true: Carry a large basket with you, and the mushrooms will see it and hide!

There are a few other purple wild mushrooms around here that could be mistaken for a blewit, but none have the distinct orange-juice aroma that these do. It’s funny — after a a while, you start to smell mushrooms in the woods. Or you develop a mysterious mushroom radar, telling you to look over there. And then, following your feet and nose and instinct, you’ll find a beautiful Amanita, or a prized Matsutake, or a whole basketful of these beauties…

And one of the mushrooms went immediately into this frittata for lunch!

Phyllis’s Wild Mushroom and Potato Frittata

Peel a large potato, cut in half lenghthwise, and slice into thin half-moons. Fry potato slices in 2 Tb olive oil in a 9-inch frying pan, gently turning the potatoes until they are just tender.

Add one sliced green onion, some chopped parsley, and about 1 cup sliced wild mushrooms (one large blewit mushroom). Sautee until everything is tender; season with salt and pepper.

In a bowl, beat 7 eggs with 1 Tb water, a dash of hot sauce or sriracha, and some salt and pepper.

Add eggs to pan; lift the potato-mushroom mixture around the edges with a spatula to allow the eggs to run underneath. Stir everything around a bit (being careful not to break up the potatoes) and smooth out the top.

When the eggs start to set, turn the heat to low, cover the pan, and cook for about 5 minutes. Then uncover the pan and slide it in the oven under the broiler — watch carefully and cook just until the top is set and lightly browned.

Slide the frittata onto a plate, grate some good cheese over the top, and serve!

If you’re interested in hunting for edible mushrooms, find someone with knowledge and experience to go with you — don’t try it alone at first, even with a field guide in hand, as mushrooms are subtle things and their defining characteristics can be deceptive to the untrained eye. As mentioned above, there are other purple mushrooms that could be confused with the blewit; make sure you know exactly what you are looking for and how to tell it apart from look-alikes! That being said, blewits are a great “first mushroom” to collect because they are so distinctive, and absolutely delicious as well…. happy hunting!



Filed under around the farm, foto friday, homestead how-to, making things, recipes, spring, wild foods

Spying on Spring

I’ve been wandering with my camera lately … finding all kinds of Spring things:

bees and blue skies

miner’s lettuce and mushrooms

laundry on the line

apple blossoms shivering into eager bloom

hiking paths lined with buttercups and clover under toes…

…and I didn’t notice until I looked at the photos later that this gnarled old tree, on the way to Foresthill, had been looking back at me with equal fascination!

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Filed under beekeeping, orchard, spring, wild foods

Spring Things: Horta, or Wild Greens, Greek-Style

Coco and Dot explore the cover-crop jungle

Well, hello there! It’s been a while since we’ve had any updates here from the farm… springtime is upon us, and that means busyness galore! But no worries, we’ll be getting back into the swing of things blog-wise as the days warm and grow longer.

Which brings us to Spring Thing Number One: Horta!

What’s that, you ask? Simply put, horta is any combination of wild greens, cooked together and drizzled with olive oil, lemon juice, and a bit of salt. It’s Greek village food, a product of getting through the lean times with what you have at hand and enjoying the bounty of the countryside at its best. After all, wild plants are just that — wild — which means they don’t need weeding, watering, or even planting. And they are far more delicious and nutritious than most “city folks” realize!

In Greek, horta (χόρτα) literally means “grasses;” that is, green wild-growing things. These are typically spring foods, enjoyed before the bounty of the summer garden arrives, and can be found in most little village tavernas as well as on every kitchen table. The greens are sometimes baked into pies and pites, but they are often eaten as a meal with just a piece of bread and a handful of olives.

In the Greek countryside, you will often see men, women, and children alike picking horta on the roadsides and in olive groves, gathering the greens into plastic bags, bushel baskets, or specially-designed large-pocketed aprons. On one visit to the ancient ruined city of Aptera, in Crete, we watched the site’s elderly caretaker gathering horta among the stones and piling them into the back seat of his (very) tiny car. Later in the day, we spotted him — and his car — in front of the village kafeneio, selling his harvest to the other locals.

Popular varieties of horta in most parts of Greece include amaranth (vlita), dandelion, chicories (stamnagathi), radicchio (radikia), sow thistle (achohi) and mustards, although each region will have its favorites. Because of our Mediterranean climate, most of those will grow quite happily here as weeds, and you probably know of a vacant lot or field in your neighborhood where at least one variety of wild green is already well-established. Of course the usual cautions about picking wild foods are in order: make sure you can positively identify your quarry, make sure it isn’t sprayed or growing in contaminated soil (such as a roadside), and, if you are new to foraging, take an experienced person with you if possible! That being said, most of these plants are very easy to identify, and you probably know how to spot several already.

Clockwise from top left: mustard, more mustard, radicchio, sow thistle (achohi)

I learned to pick horta from my Papu (that’s Greek for grandfather). I’d follow him around when I was little, watching as he snipped mustard and thistle sprouts with a little knife. It always amazed me how the toughest, prickliest, bitterest greens turn tender and delicious with a bit of know-how — and that’s really what horta is all about. It became a food by necessity, in times when Greece, particularly the island of Crete, was under invasion as so often happened (Ottomans, Venetians, Romans, et cetera…) Without the luxury of a grocery store, as we are now so used to, people had to grow or find their own food. And when turbulent times made farming difficult, unreliable, or impossible, you had to turn to the countryside to feed yourself and your family. That foraging culture, and self-sufficient mentality, has never left Greece, even in modern times.

And thank goodness for that! As a matter of fact, wild greens are a huge factor in the healthiness of the Mediterranean diet: the original studies that found that way of eating so beneficial took place in the 1950s in Crete, where horta plays a large part in the local diet. Wild foods, and greens in particular, are often far more nutritious than their cultivated counterparts, and are loaded with antioxidants, as well as vitamins and minerals. More on the Cretan diet here!

Wild greens, with a bit of Swiss chard from the garden

To pick horta, find yourself a sharp knife or scissor and a bucket or bag (unless you have already made yourself one of those neat horta-picking aprons!) The greens shrink down considerable when cooked; I usually fill a three-gallon bucket. Look for plants that have not yet started to flower, as those will be the most tender. Remember, the more mature the plant, the stronger the taste — if you aren’t accustomed to bitter flavors, you might want to start with the younger greens. Take leaves and young shoots, but be careful not to cut the plant back all the way to the ground or you won’t have any seeds for next year’s crop! If you cut carefully (think pruning), you should be able to get several harvests from each plant over the season.

After you have picked your horta, you’ll need to wash them. We pack them into a clean five-gallon bucket, fill the bucket with water, weight the greens with a plate, and soak them overnight to wash out all the dirt. If you prefer, you could wash them quickly as you would salad greens.

Papu cleaning the horta
The traditional way of cooking horta is to boil it in just enough water until the greens are tender, adding salt to taste before or after cooking. Serve warm or at room temperature, in bowls with plenty of the juice for dipping…

And don’t forget the olive oil, lemon, and some good crusty bread!

Kαλή όρεξη! Kalí órexi! Bon appetit!


Filed under history, homestead how-to, recipes, spring, wild foods

Mushroom Hunt!

Spring may not “officially” arrive for another month or so, but you’d never know it here in the foothills! The days are growing longer and warmer, and the ground is carpeted with little green sprouts eagerly drinking in the sunshine. The apricot and almond trees are on the verge of bursting into bloom, and we’re almost done pruning the pears and grapes — any day now their first leaves will show. Yellow mustard flowers dot the orchard; the chickens roam to and fro snacking on tender shoots and tasty grubs.

This is the best day of our lives!

The flowers and green growing things may be the most obvious signs of Spring, but look closely and there are others, stranger and more subtle…

Remember that New Year’s resolution about foraging and mushroom-hunting? Well, this weekend our mushroom-loving pals Thea, Gayle and Jay came over to see just what is hiding in the woods — we found and identified quite a variety of fungi, and, yes, at least one is edible!

Awaiting identification — despite being on the kitchen counter, these are not all OK to eat.

Thea, Gayle, the field guide, and a pile of mushrooms!

Some mushrooms are unabashedly showy, like these “turkey tails” growing on a pine stump…

…while others are sneakier, like this Helvella, the Fluted Black Elfin Saddle. (Aren’t those names just the best?!) At first glance from above, you might miss it entirely; it looks like a shriveled, crumpled little black thing, unremarkable and kind of icky. Get down to eye level, however, and it’s quite a beauty in its own weird way:

Speaking of weird, check out these club fungi — again, you might not see them at all at a casual glance!

The find of the day — in the edible department, anyway — was this gorgeous blewit, Clitocybe nuda. I had seen these surreal, lilac-colored mushrooms growing under the oaks before, but had no idea that they are a prized edible! (Of course, that doesn’t mean you should go eating wild mushrooms because they are purple; the blewit isn’t the only one.)

Here’s the blewit in its native habitat:

Like most all wild foods, mushrooms are seasonal; different varieties appear at different times of year, and most prefer the damp, rainy season from autumn to spring. In other words, now is the time to get outdoors, crawl around in the leaves, and appreciate these mysterious beauties! If you’re interested in hunting for edible mushrooms, find someone with knowledge and experience to go with you — don’t try it alone, even with a field guide in hand, as mushrooms are subtle things and their defining characteristics can be deceptive to the untrained eye. But, even if eating them gives you the willies, hunting for and identifying mushrooms can be a strangely addictive pastime. Contrary to what most of us have been taught at an early age, mushrooms are not all toxic, and they will not poison you if you pick them up (just don’t go licking your fingers!) Why not try making some spore prints? Just find a mature mushroom, snip or cut off the stem, and place the cap, gills down, on a sheet of paper. Mushroom spores vary in color from pale buff to inky brown; try both white and black paper to see which one the print shows up best on. Cover the caps with a bowl or glass to prevent drafts, and leave them for several ours to overnight. The white spore print in the image below is from an Oak-Loving Collybia, Collybia dryophila, found growing — you guessed it, under an oak tree.

If you are intrigued by the thought of mushroom-hunting, here’s a great introduction to how they live, what they really are, and some common species: What is this thing in my yard? Your local public library is also a great place to find mushroom field guides; the Placer County Library has quite a few, and borrowing them is a good way to find out if mushrooming is your kind of hobby, as well as finding a guide that works well for you. Mushrooms Demystified, by David Arora, is Thea’s recommendation — it features dichotomous keys for identification, plenty of photographs, and very thorough (and entertaining) descriptions.

While you are out scouring the woods for fungi, keep an eye out for poison oak — it’s sneaky this time of year, without its telltale “leaves of three,” but the bare stems can also release their nasty oils if disturbed. And if you do get hungry, there’s plenty of miner’s lettuce at this time of year to snack on! It’s much easier to identify than mushrooms; most children around here learn when they are quite small to recognize its tasty parasol-like leaves. The plants are also a good indicator for the kind of moist, loamy soils mushrooms love. Here’s a particularly verdant patch growing along with another wild edible, chickweed:
Happy hunting!

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