GRAFTON—For those who prefer to stock their larder with food they’ve hunted or foraged themselves, late summer is mushroom season, and the Nature Museum wants people to take advantage of this year’s mycological abundance.
The museum — which, according to its website, “focus[es] on the natural history of northern New England, with exhibits on local flora, fauna, and geology” and offers educational programs for schools and the community — has invited Ari Rockland-Miller and Jenna Antonino DiMare, a Burlington-based couple, to lead a workshop, “The Wild World of Mushrooms” on Saturday, Aug. 25.
Rockland-Miller and DiMare, who call their operation the Mushroom Forager, will offer the program twice: once at 9:30 a.m. and again at 1 p.m.
Each workshop begins with preparation. Participants will first learn to identify the mushrooms they can expect to see. Then, out they will go into the nearby Windmill Hill Pinnacle Association’s forest, on a guided foray, in search of what Rockland-Miller calls the “distinctive and coveted species that fruit in Vermont in August.”
He noted that on such missions, “we often find chanterelles, black trumpets, and a range of gourmet species.”
The work of the Mushroom Forager is not about foraging for commercial purposes, Rockland-Miller told The Commons. “It’s a small business project. A side thing. But it’s a real passion of ours,” he said.
He and DiMare don’t sell their finds to restaurants, stores, or distributors. “It’s about getting out and having fun and teaching people the skill set to ethically and safely hunt wild mushrooms themselves,” he said.
He cautioned, “You have to be 100-percent sure, not 99-percent sure” when it comes to identifying mushrooms.
“There are deadly mushrooms that grow here,” said Rockland-Miller, who noted he and DiMare have “never been even slightly poisoned” by any of their foraged mushrooms.
Instead, “we’ve had many delicious meals,” he said.
Rockland-Miller’s favorite way to cook mushrooms is “mostly a seven-minute saute in a cast-iron pan with butter and garlic,” he said, and noted there’s some variation depending on the variety.
“Different mushrooms have different properties,” he said.
The one very important common denominator: “Cook all mushrooms! It enhances their nutritional value, and some are toxic if eaten raw,” he said.
During the program, Rockland-Miller instructs participants to harvest wild foods in an ethical manner, which mostly involves not taking every single mushroom one sees. “Leave some!” he said.
In addition to teaching classes on safe and ethical mushroom foraging, Rockland-Miller and DiMare, through The Mushroom Forager, offer programs on mushroom cultivation and searching the forest for wild, edible plants, “especially in the spring, before many mushrooms — other than the elusive morels — are ready,” he said.
A self-taught mycophile
Rockland-Miller’s interest in mushrooms began when he was a young child growing up in western Massachusetts. “When I was 10, I begged my mom to buy me the Audubon field guide to mushrooms,” he said. As he got older, he gained enough confidence to safely forage for the table.
Years later, Rockland-Miller managed a mushroom farm at Cornell University’s School of Integrative Plant Science. He said he worked on techniques for growing mushrooms beneath a nut grove’s forest canopy without having to cut down the trees.
Rockland-Miller’s formal education was not mushroom-based. He attended Brown University, then studied law at the graduate level.
“I’m mostly self-taught,” he said — mainly, because he couldn’t find a mentor.
“We’re a mycophobic country,” said Rockland-Miller. “In France, you can take a mushroom to a pharmacy and someone will identify it for you.”
Not finding a mentor inspired Rockland-Miller to develop the Mushroom Forager, so he could mentor others.
“Jenna and I help people identify mushrooms they’ve found,” he said. “The mystery, the treasure hunt, the enigmatic quality of mushrooms — and they taste so good — has always been fascinating to me,” he said.
‘Peak season for mushrooms’
Rockland-Miller and DiMare have presented this workshop at the Nature Museum many times, he said. “We love coming there,” he said, and added, “we usually have pretty productive forays.”
The particular location where he and DiMare lead workshop attendees “is a good spot,” he said.
Although there are no guarantees with foraged foods, Rockland-Miller expressed confidence in this year’s harvest.
“July through September is peak season” for mushrooms, he said, and noted “the highest factor that affects the abundance — or lack thereof — is rain.”
Referring to the late-July wet weather, Rockland-Miller said, “All this rain is good for the mushrooms.”
Rockland-Miller warned prospective attendees to dress for rain if it’s in the forecast. Even if it’s pouring outside, the forage must go on, “as long as it’s safe and there are no thunderstorms” or other unsafe events, he said.
The only other meteorological reason to cancel the program is if there’s an extreme drought, he said, because then there would be no mushrooms.
“Mushroom hunters need to learn to love the rain,” said Rockland-Miller, “because that’s what it’s all about.”