Mushroom Hunter

By Alabel Chapin 
Photography of boletes by Nathaniel Chapin and of Alabel with chanterelles by Elizabeth Chapin

We are hunting for mushrooms, and I find myself in a different world, lulled by the smell of the deep woods, the dappled sunlight and the rotten logs covered in moss. As we stalk through deep vertical stands of birch and hemlock, fir and cedar in the rolling hills of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, the quiet is all around us—interrupted only occasionally by the call of a wood thrush, the croak of a raven, the scamper and chatter of a chipmunk or the snapping of branches as a deer pushes through the underbrush.

My mom is the mushroom expert among us, but we all enjoy the wonderful and tedious business of finding and eating mushrooms from the woods.

There are many kinds of edible mushrooms to be found and eaten in the Vermont woods, but we look for our personal favorites. In June and July, we look for the orange flash of chanterelles, found in places where trees have fallen and rotted. Their turmeric color and trumpet shape are unmistakable and we usually find multitudes of them after a rain. Later in the summer, we look for boletes that look like toadstools, with thick stems and dense, porous undersides, instead of the gills of the chanterelles. The most prized of the boletes is the Boletus edulis—the famous porcini mushroom—but even though we search, on this trip it’s too early in the season to find any. Instead, we settle for other delicious kinds such as B. subglabripes and B. scaber. We are lucky to find many patches in our own section of woods because we wouldn’t have the chance to hunt elsewhere. Mushroom hunters never reveal their favorite foraging spots; they are more secretive than fishermen. Even our old friend down the road keeps his spots secret and says, “Not a chance,” when we ask if we can join him.

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Identifying a bolete is the hardest part. We take each kind and cut it open, so that we can see the color when it bruises. Our Russian friend—a former CIA agent and now an expert bolete hunter—helps us label them as best we can, but advises us to create a spore print for each because it’s the only sure way to identify a mushroom. To create prints, we place each mushroom cap, bottom down, on white paper, cover it with a glass and leave it overnight. In the morning, we find a spore print under the mushrooms—each a different color. Our friend notes that a pink spore print indicates a bitter mushroom that could potentially ruin any sauce or dish you’d make with it. Before cooking the mushrooms, my mom tastes a sample of each one and discovers that, indeed, the one that produced a pink print is bitter, the one that made a yellow print is citrusy and the one that made a brown print is bursting with woodsy flavor.
Finally, it’s time to cook them. My dad prefers a sauce with Jersey cream, butter and onion for the boletes; my mom likes Marcella Hazan’s woodsman-style sauce with tomatoes—the one we’re using this time. The assortment of colors of the sliced boletes on the cutting board is absolutely lovely. As soon as they cook for a few minutes, though, the color is gone. We add garlic, chopped tomatoes, white wine and parsley to the sauce, ladle it over cooked pasta and top with Parmesan, salt and pepper. The result is perfection.


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FETTUCCINE AL BOSCAIOLA
(FETTUCCINE WOODSMAN'S STYLE)

Adapted from Marcella Hazan’s More Classic Italian Cooking

Serves 4

1 oz. dried boletus mushrooms
2 c. warm water
¾ lb. fresh boletus mushrooms
¹/³ c. olive oil
4 garlic cloves minced
Red chili flakes
¹/³ c. serrano ham, cut into very narrow strips (about ¼-in. wide)
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 c. fresh or canned plum tomatoes
½ c. white wine
1 lb. fettuccine
½ c. chopped Italian parsley
¹/³ c. Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated


Soak the dried mushrooms in the water in a small bowl for at least 30 minutes. When they have finished soaking, lift them out carefully without stirring the water. Rinse the mushrooms several times in cold water, chop them finely and set aside. Filter the mushroom water through a strainer lined with a paper towel and reserve. Wash the fresh mushrooms and cut them into thin slices without detaching the stems from the caps. Put the oil, garlic and chili flakes in a large sauté pan and place over medium-high heat. When the garlic becomes a deep golden color, remove it with a slotted spoon and reserve. Place the ham in the oil and cook for 1 minute, then add the reconstituted mushrooms and their water. Cook until most of the liquid has evaporated. Add the fresh mushrooms and the salt and pepper and cook for 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes with their juice and the wine, cover the pan and turn the heat to low.

In a large pot of boiling, salted water cook the fettuccine until al dente, drain and add it to the pan of sauce. Raise the heat and toss. Transfer to a serving dish, top with the parsley, golden garlic and cheese, and serve immediately.