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“All Mushrooms Are Edible…”

A duo of wild mushrooms from the Vosges mountains in eastern France. Photo by Erin Brown.

A duo of wild mushrooms from the Vosges mountains in eastern France. Photo by Erin Brown.

Nothing compares to the thrill of taking your life into your own hands, especially when it comes to seemingly innocuous things, like dinner.

The Vosges Mountains in eastern France teem with dozens of strains of wild mushrooms. The fungal blooms nestled at the foot of beech and oak trees were a fixture of my nightly trek down the mountain, coaxing a herd of goats home from their pasture, the mushrooms’ loamy tops peeking up from the soil, a temptation and a warning all at once: These were not your farmers market chanterelles or oysters. Even with years of experience foraging wild greens, it took time to pluck up the courage to back-track with a basket and a knife, hoping my lallygagging herd hadn’t trampled the specimens I’d spotted earlier. Dusk settled down over the old-growth woods, and I knelt in the undergrowth, snipping delicate white stems and squat lavender rounds from the soil. 

Wild mushrooms from the Vosges Mountains in eastern France.  Photo by Erin Brown.

Wild mushrooms from the Vosges Mountains in eastern France. Photo by Erin Brown.

Walking home with volatile booty in hand, an old Russian joke popped into my mind. I first heard it while considering another basket of wild mushrooms, this one brought out of the taiga at the edge of Lake Baikal in Siberia by my friend, Misha. It was my turn to prepare dinner for the staff of the Bio station where we lived, and Misha proudly presented me with the mushrooms, a welcome change from our fish-and-mayonnaise diet. Dusting off the dirt and inspecting them, I asked him if he was sure they were edible.  He looked at me surprised.  “But, Arina, all mushrooms are edible…” he replied. My sharp inhale and furrowed brow was his cue: “…but some are only edible once.”

Collecting wild mushrooms is an exciting—but dangerous—adventure. Be sure you have a guide to local fungi, and a local expert, to help you verify that your find is safe to eat. Photo by Erin Brown.

Collecting wild mushrooms is an exciting—but dangerous—adventure. Be sure you have a guide to local fungi, and a local expert, to help you verify that your find is safe to eat. Photo by Erin Brown.

This time around, our French farmer, Gaspard, had given me a crash-course in local delicacies and surefire no-gos of the Vosges, but, still, when I began slicing my loot and the tawny caps suddenly turned inky blue-black — like dropping iodine onto a potato in fourth grade science class — my internal body temperature plunged at least five degrees. There is something very Socratic about cooking yourself a ragout of wild mushrooms.

Putting Socrates out of mind, I channeled Julia Child instead, telling myself that butter, and lots of it, was a proven antidote to poisonous fungus.  And then I repeated the mantra: “Don’t crowd the mushrooms!” as I stirred.

Browned, salted, de-glazed, and glistening up at me from my bowl, the mushrooms and I had a stare-down for a couple of minutes. “Some are only edible once,” I repeated. “Some are only edible once.”  Just before they stopped steaming, I took up my fork and dove in.

Erin Brown
Erin Brown is an art-dealer-turned-nomad who calls New York City home, since that is where the storage unit with her life's belongings in it resides. She has been rambling since 2005 when she up and left to work on Lake Baikal in Siberia for a month at the age of 19, and hasn't been able to sit still ever since. Erin has lived in Moscow and Paris, been hopelessly lost in the Balkans, herded goats and studied cheese making in France, scaled minor mountains in the Himalayas, farmed strawberries 500km above the arctic circle in Norway, nearly met her doom falling through shoddily-covered manhole in Kazakhstan, and systematically figured out which restaurant on curry row in NYC has the best butter chicken. A stalker of spice markets and frequenter of food carts, Erin is a passionate foodie who is more concerned about what's for lunch than the major attractions in any city. When she is not eating, cooking or writing about food, she writes art criticism and runs a social media marketing business.

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