By Jason Cortlund, on the making of Now, Forager
It’s September 2010 as I drive from Brooklyn to a Ukrainian summer camp in the Hudson Valley to attend the annual Northeast Mycological Federation foray—a gathering of amateur mushroom hunters and professional mycologists (biologists who specialize in fungi). In addition to hunting mushrooms, I’m also volunteering for the weekend’s demonstration of mycophagy —which is the heady technical term that the fungi intelligentsia uses for cooking and eating mushrooms.
Our kitchen boss is Elinoar Shavit, a morel expert (her study of lead-arsenate-contaminated morels found in apple orchards is required reading) and excellent cook. Her menu includes a strudel of Boletus edulis (porcini) and a fruit salad festooned with the transparent jelly fungus Tremella fuciformis.
Her plans are so complex that she’s using two kitchens. Since I know how to run a deep fryer (my first kitchen job involved a Fryolator and many taco-salad bowls), I’m drafted to be Elinoar’s sous, running kitchen number two. On top of frying up a selection of battered chicken of the woods (Laetiporus sulphureus) and giant puffball (Calvatia gigantea) mushrooms for 200-plus, I’m roasting 15 pounds of hen of the woods (Grifola frondosa) and figuring out what to do with three dozen duck eggs that someone brought from home.
An enormous cast-iron pan hangs on the wall, and I decide to improvise a frittata with roasted onion and several pounds of sautéed Entoloma abortivum. This crazy fungus looks, and kind of tastes, like the love child of gnocchi and sweetbreads. It’s actually a honey mushroom that’s parasitized by a species of Entoloma (or vice versa; mycologists may seem tame, but they thrive on discussing competing theories, revising species names and debating the merits of DNA testing).
The frittata is huge and slow to cook; I alternate between the gas range and the salamander broiler to fire it from both directions. Eventually, what feels like 87 pounds of woodland magic sets in the middle. It takes three of us working together to turn it out onto a pizza pan to serve. It’s perfect; the light-brown crust encasing the concoction doesn’t stick to the ancient well-seasoned pan. Sigh of relief. And the experience became a foreshadower of sorts; in a couple of weeks, I would start principal photography on a film where duck eggs and fungi would also play a part.
My codirector, Julia Halperin, and I had spent the past year in preproduction on a feature-length film about a husband and wife who hunt mushrooms around New York City. We wanted to make a food movie that was more about cooking and ingredients than it was about eating. Now, Forager was conceived as the first fiction film for the Slow Food generation.
To do this on a very modest, independently financed budget in the greater New York area, we’d have to be smart, scrappy and very lucky. But since Julia and I came up as filmmakers in Austin, we know a thing or two about getting things done through the virtues of gristle and sass.
The story behind the film was shaped by my love for hands-on sourcing of different foods in different seasons. It follows the two main characters, married couple Lucien and Regina, from fall to early summer. As the landscape changes with the weather, their relationship also sees a transformation.
Shooting our exterior scenes in the correct seasons with naturally occurring species of fungi and flora would be our greatest production value. It would spread our production cycle out over the course of a year (which made scheduling cast and crew tricky) and put a great deal of emphasis on my ability to find all the mushrooms we’d need—from 50 pounds of wild hen of the woods for the opening sequence, to the fatally toxic destroying angel (Amanita bisporigera), to a selection of elusive spring morels.
Which brings us back to the duck eggs. In a pivotal scene late in the story, Lucien finds morels and cooks them with duck eggs out in the woods. We shot these scenes in season the previous May with morels that I had gathered the week before. The action looked fine in wide shots. In close-up, though, the morels didn’t look right. An experienced mushroom hunter would know these morels were previously cut and then staged. It just wouldn’t do; we’d have to reshoot these the following spring.
Now, I love our crew—I’d trust them with my life. But I don’t share my morel spots with anyone. That’s mushroom hunting. Morels are sacred; knowing where they grow is earned, not given. To shoot morels in situ, I hauled a light camera package along on solo hunts and shot what I found along the way. And yes—we ate every single edible mushroom that appears in the film. Not many productions are so efficient that they eat the stars at the end of the day. That’s Austin-style independent filmmaking for you.
Now, Forager, directed by Jason Cortlund and Julia Halperin, premiered at International Film Festival Rotterdam and New Directors/New Films in 2012. It’s screening in select theaters across the U.S. and Europe through early 2013. For more information, visit nowforager.com
MORELS IN CREAM SAUCE
As soon as I get home from a successful morel hunt, this is the first thing I make. Serve it with fresh pasta, roast chicken, broiled halibut, venison steaks or a bone-in rib eye. If I’m in a place where ramps (wild leeks) are growing, I’ll swap out the shallot for those.
2 c. fresh morels, sliced (If you only have dried morels, soak them in hot water for 10 minutes and blot dry on paper towels. Reserve the soaking liquid for broth.)
3 T. butter
Salt, to taste
1 large shallot, minced
½ c. Madeira wine (or Marsala, dry sherry, brandy or broth)
1–1½ c. heavy cream
Fresh ground pepper, to taste
Clean and slice the morels (I do mine crossways, so they form little rings). Heat a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the butter and melt until foamy. Add the morels in an even layer. When they are fully brown on one side, about 3 minutes, add the salt, stir and continue browning. When the morels begin to turn golden all over, add the minced shallot. Continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until the shallot softens and starts to turn translucent. Deglaze the pan with the Madeira (or some other tasty liquid) and continue cooking until it’s mostly evaporated. Reduce the heat to medium. Add the cream (more cream for saucing fresh pastas, and a bit less for serving with meats and fish). Stir and reduce until the sauce coats the back of a spoon. Season to taste with fresh thyme, ground pepper and more salt if necessary.
Note: Fresh morels should be cooked at least 8 to 10 minutes. These fungi species naturally contain hydrazine compounds (similar to those in jet fuel) that can make you very sick if consumed raw. These compounds evaporate during the cooking process—so as tempting as it might be, don’t inhale the vapors—and always use your stove’s vent hood.
WILD MUSHROOMS IN TEXAS?
Seeing a mushroom growing outdoors during an Austin summer seems unfathomable, but they do grow here. Central Texas is one of the only places I know that can actually have two morel flushes per year: spring and fall. The common morel species in our area appears under ashe junipers—which is maybe the only positive association for this arboreal blight to landscapes and sinuses. Besides tree species, the variables that I associate with morel fruitings are sustained rainfall over several days or weeks, soil temperature of approximately 50 degrees and limestone-rich soil composition. There are other factors, theories and superstitions about when and where to find morels, but these simple clues can get you started thinking like a mushroom. Other edible fungi like chanterelles, oyster mushrooms and chicken of the woods mushrooms also grow in our parts. The cooler, wetter Texas winters can really bring out the fungi while Northern states are dormant for the season.
Don’t eat any wild food that hasn’t been identified with 100 percent certainty by someone with experience. Poisonous look-alikes, environmental contamination or even insufficient cooking can make you sick. If in doubt, throw it out!