Mystic nature center's Mushroom Festival puts the fun in fungi
Mystic - It was probably the food that drew dozens of people to Sunday's 13th annual Wild Mushroom Festival at the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center: mushroom ice cream, mushroom beer, mushroom pastries and even little mushroom delicacies served up by a Foxwoods chef.
But the nature center, true to its mission, found a way to sneak in some educational material. Volunteers from the Connecticut Valley Mycological Society staffed a long table filled with several varieties of mushrooms recently collected in the area and taught visitors about the different types of fungi.
Although several varieties of edible mushrooms can be found in southeastern Connecticut, the fungi used in the festival's food were ordered and imported.
In addition to the concoctions prepared with savory mushrooms like black trumpets, portabellas and morels, Stonington's Zest pastry shop and Mystic Drawbridge Ice Cream made treats with candy caps - a type of fungus with a slightly sweet, maple syrup-like flavor.
Although they weren't so good for eating, the mushrooms picked by mycological society members - an enormous white puff top and a few tiny gray ones sprouting out of moss, disc-shaped ones still clinging to tree bark and golden chanterelles - could be strikingly beautiful, and people clinging to food samples lingered over the society's table, pointing to their favorite specimens.
Although society members were able to fill the table with numerous species, the mushroom walks they led around the nature center were not nearly so productive. That came as no surprise to society member Connie Borodenko, who said this year's lack of rain has been "very bad" for mushrooms.
"I have not found hardly any of my favorites," she said.
Borodenko and other society members frequently found themselves addressing questions about the safety of foraging mushrooms.
Mushroom hunting is "a pastime, it's a hobby," said Janet Blanchard, who lives in Moodus and joined the mycological society after observing foragers collecting mushrooms near her house. In the following year, she collected around 16 varieties of edible mushroom from her yard.
There's a whole spectrum of edibility, said Borodenko, who has "been mushrooming since I was a teeny kid with my Polish grandmother."
Some mushrooms are edible or what chefs call "eminently edible," she said, although opinions vary about how eminent the fungi in the latter category are. On the other end of the spectrum, some are deadly, and others are just toxic enough to make the eater sick.
And then there is the middle category, what Borodenko called non-edibles: mushrooms that won't hurt you but that you probably don't want to eat either. These can be "woody, stinky, slimy, bitter (or) hot," said Borodenko.
A common edible - and one of Borodenko's favorites - is the "hen of the woods," which the Japanese call the maitake mushroom.
The maitake is a "very prized" edible species that grows in clusters at the base of trees, said Bill Yule, the mycological society's vice president.
It can be used, as Borodenko prefers, in soups stocks and other recipes. But it also has a long tradition of use in Eastern medicine and comes with a host of medicinal claims.
Yule, who has degrees in botany and scientific education, cautioned visitors to exercise scientific skepticism about the claims. But he said recent research supports some of them, such as the mushroom's supposedly anti-bacterial properties.
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