Head to New Mexico mountains to forage for mushrooms

With help of mycologist, GeoBetty Tours leads search for culinary mushrooms.


Highlights

Fit City headed to the Sacramento Mountains near Cloudcroft, N.M., to hunt for mushrooms.

Never eat a mushroom you can’t positively identify. It could be poisonous.

Mushrooms grow in shady, moist areas and are easiest to find after rainfall.

Mushrooms come in all shape, sizes, colors and textures.

We lobbied Mother Nature for rain, high humidity and fungus when we planned this trip, and now she’s delivering.

In the Lincoln National Forest of New Mexico, afternoon thunderstorms drop belly-fulls of water in the forest in August, triggering mushroom madness in the mountains.

And mushrooms are why we’ve come. We want to stir them into pasta and cook them into omelets. (No, we don’t want the kind that make you hallucinate.) But Mother Nature doesn’t care if we’re gourmet cooks or not, so we’re not sure what we’ll find.

Don Baumgardt, who heads a biking and hiking tour business called GeoBetty Tours based in El Paso, timed the adventure to take advantage of monsoon season. Since our early August trip also happens to coincide with the Perseid meteor shower, we’ve dubbed it “Shower With a Fungi.”

Right now, after a night of rain, we’re strolling down a trail, pausing every few minutes to inspect another ear-, umbrella- or dome-shaped fungus that pokes its head through the soil or peeps out of a rotting log.

“It’s useless to try to find the mushrooms,” Baumgardt jokes. “The mushrooms find you.”

It’s been our mantra all weekend, but from the moment we pulled into the parking lot of the Slide campsite in Sacramento Mountains and spotted a tree stump bristling with hatchet-shaped wedges of fungus, we’ve seen a lot of mushrooms. Before the day ends, we’ll have found more than 25 different types, a bounty I never predicted.

Fungus comes in all forms, colors and sizes, and more than 375 types grow in New Mexico. A quick flip through an encyclopedia of mushrooms turns up some crazy-looking species that grow on the planet, including Agaricopolyporus extraterrestrialis, which looks like a squadron of glowing spaceships perched on the side of a tree trunk, and Lysurus periphragmoides, a member of the stinkhorn family that smells like rotting flesh and attracts flies. (I’m telling you, mushrooms are cool!)

We’re armed with pocket knives and paper bags (plastic bags make mushrooms sweat), and now and then someone gently nudges one from its anchor. To make sure we don’t pick anything toxic or hallucinogenic, we’ve enlisted a mycologist, or fungus expert, to join us.

ALSO IN TRAVEL: In Fort Collins, grab a bike to visit the famous breweries

“If we see any choice mushrooms, we’ll collect them and cook them up,” Cat Cort, our resident mushroom expert, told us as we set out. She’s working on her doctorate in biology and has long swooned for ’shrooms, partly because so much about them remains unknown.

“There will always be new things to discover,” she says. “It’s like a frontier of science, and we’ll never get to the end of it.”

Besides, as a vegan, she likes to eat them, too. “From a culinary standpoint, I love the idea of wild edibles foraging,” Cort says. “It’s free, open and available to anyone. You don’t have to buy them at a grocery store. It’s accessible to anyone, and there’s a plethora of things.”

Just make sure you know what you’ve found before you put a mushroom in your mouth, she advises. “Some mushrooms are deadly poisonous or will make you very sick. It’s better to err on the side of caution.”

Which is why, after our hike, we carefully spread our findings out on a table back at camp and take a closer look. Cort examines each mushroom’s shape, color and texture, and gently scrapes the surface of each to see if it bruises or changes color. She inspects the gills beneath the caps and places each one on a piece of foil, so she can check the spores that come from each sample. All these characteristics help identify an exact species.

Our group of about a dozen participants has come mostly out of curiosity. We all love to camp, and mushroom foraging is just one more way to enjoy the outdoors. If it means free food, well, that’s just a bonus.

Victor Cordero, 43, who is camping with us, has more than a passing interest in fungus. He recently returned from a summer internship at a mushroom farm in the Summerland, British Columbia, called What the Fungus, where he learned the ins and outs of raising mushrooms. Now he’s inoculated logs at his farm near El Paso, where he hopes to harvest his own crop.

“I discovered the many benefits of mushrooms,” he says. Some are good to eat, but others mushrooms have medicinal qualities.

Our morning hike has spawned everything from brown, jellylike wood ears to dense, woody conks. We’ve got fungus rimmed in purple, mushrooms with orange caps and mushrooms that resemble tiny, sunset-hued bits of ocean coral.

What we know as mushrooms are actually the flowering part of a larger fungus that lives underground or in a tree, Cort explains. If you spot one mushroom, chances are it’s connected via an underground network you can’t see to other surrounding fungi.

After a careful examination, Cort determines that we can’t eat any of the mushrooms we’ve found. Some won’t taste good; others might make us sick. A few she just can’t positively identify, and it’s not worth taking the risk.

That doesn’t really matter. We’ve brought a supply of store-bought mushrooms just in case, and before long we whip up some potatoes, garlic, spinach and shitake mushrooms, which we happily fork into tortillas to make tacos.

Life, it seems, is better when we’ve got fungus among us.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Travel

A birder’s paradise in Zimbabwe

John Brebner swept his binoculars over a fissure-ridden rock face that towered over a grove of acacia trees. Candy-colored striations of dolomite and quartz ran through the tan granite, and human figures painted by Khoisan Bushmen three millenniums ago were faintly visible on the facade.  “There it is,” Brebner exclaimed, passing the...
What's it like to film a TV travel show? I joined the crew of "Travels With Darley" to find out.

The question rang out like a cowbell through the French Alps: "Where did Darley go?"  The host of PBS's "Travels With Darley" was missing. She was last seen at the bottom of Isola 2000, a ski resort about 55 miles north of Nice. A member of the ski patrol released a stream of French into a walkie-talkie, his words punctuated...
Europe’s best border-busting day trips
Europe’s best border-busting day trips

With relatively small countries and delightful public transportation, it’s easy to throw a change of scenery and culture into your European itinerary. Here are some of my favorite international day trips. London to Paris Zipping on the bullet train from London to Paris (or vice versa) in a tunnel deep below the English Channel (the “Chunnel&rdquo...
5 international trips that are cheaper than a weekend in London

We’ve told you how expensive New York City can be, but there are plenty of other destinations that will break the bank in no time at all. London is one of those places. The popular European city drew a record 19 million international visitors in 2016 alone, according to the Evening Standard, and for good reason. London is loved for its centuries-old...
Marriott’s new loyalty program: not as bad as Starwood fans feared

In the nearly 2 1/2 years since Marriott announced its intention to acquire Starwood Hotels and Resorts, the parent of Westin, Sheraton and W, skeptical customers of both companies have waited impatiently for answers to the following question: Just how many rewards and perks would Marriott take away from the 110 million members when it combined the...
More Stories