Going wild with mushrooms in the woods of Hope
Hope — Jeff Spera of Camden said he became interested in foraging for wild mushrooms when he was just 15. Spera recalled his childhood neighbor, Mushrooms for Health Founder Greg Marley, teaching him about the abundant edible — and medicinal — mushrooms growing in the woods of Midcoast Maine.
Now 37, Spera forages mushrooms for both sale and personal use. Spera said he sells to an ever-changing assortment of restaurants and specialty food stores along the Maine coast. Spera has also lead mushroom foraging tours for guests at Camden's Hartstone Inn.
He said mushroom foraging immediately piqued his interest. He said he typically looks for an array of about a dozen mushroom varieties when foraging.
"It had a magical feeling to it," Spera said of mushroom foraging.
On a mushroom foraging excursion Tuesday, Sept. 4, Spera headed into a wooded area of Hope. Before even hitting the relegated logging road where most of the day's foraging would be done, Spera was already kneeling to examine a bright spot in the pine needles along the paved roadside. After brushing aside some sand and forest debris a large, fan-shaped lobster mushroom was revealed. Spera examined the mushroom before cleanly cutting it from it's base and transferring it into a large basket. Nearby more lobster mushrooms weren't difficult to spot.
"I wouldn't pick these on a heavily traveled road," Spera noted, citing debris and run-off as an unappetizing addition to the bounty of edible mushrooms.
Spera said late August through October is the prime season for mushroom foraging in Maine. He noted some mushrooms don't appear until after the first frost. Spera said he typically finds hen of the woods mushrooms and chicken mushrooms in abundance during the fall. Those varieties grow on trees and can vary in size from around three pounds up to 50 pounds, Spera said.
Not far along the logging road, Spera darts just off the path. He has spotted a Chaga mushroom growing just high enough to harvest on a nearby tree. He cuts the woody, dark, shelf-like mushroom down and looks it over.
The benefits of medicinal and gourmet mushrooms are vast according to Spera. Chaga mushrooms — which grow on trees — are prized for their wide array of medical benefits, including their anti-cancerous properties, Spera explained. He noted that mushrooms are being studied "more widely than ever for medicinal purposes."
Additionally there is "great local interest" from chefs in the area who "love to work with local mushrooms," Spera said. He explained the "unique colors and tastes" are extremely attractive in the culinary realm.
After about a mile — and numerous mushrooms, few edible, save a few more lobster mushrooms, and some deathly toxic — Spera finds a spot he thinks might yield some chanterelles. He leaves the trail and heads down a stream bank into the sun-dappled woods. The forest floor is covered alternately in moss, leaves and pine needles as well as the requisite rotting stumps and decrepit stone walls. Before long his expert eye catches a glimmer of yellow and he announces a cluster of yellow foot chanterelles, a wild mushroom variety prized for their flavor. Raw and freshly plucked from the woods they have an aroma of fruit and earth, Spera holds them to his nose a moment before they join the lobster mushrooms in the basket.
Spera said he has lived in Oregon and rural North Carolina and has foraged for mushrooms in both places. He said Maine is the best place he's found for mushroom foraging.
"Maine has a very unique array of mushrooms in lots of little micro climates and different forests," he said. "Maine is a mushroom hot spot for sure."
Spera cautioned future foragers to take care and encouraged them to take a lecture or course before venturing out.
"There is nothing like firsthand experience and learning from a seasoned mushroom hunter," he explained.
"There are old mushroom hunters and there are bold mushroom hunters, but there are no old, bold mushroom hunters," he recited the saying with a laugh. He said one mushroom variety commonly confused is the Jack-O-Lantern mushroom, which closely resembles a chanterelle.
"You will end up in the hospital getting your stomach pumped [if you eat a Jack-O-Lantern]," he said. Personally Spera has never had a toxicity issue. He noted that there are often "choice edibles growing directly beside deadly poisonous varieties."
"It's always better to err on the side of caution," he said. He advised beginners to pick their mushrooms, identify them with a book — the Audubon field guide is a great one, he said — and toss the specimens in the compost after making an identification.
"It's a good rule of thumb," Spera said. "Never eat a mushroom without a positive ID from an expert."
Spera explained mushrooms often grow in the same spot "year after year." He noted that there are trees he has been foraging mushrooms off of for "almost 12 years."
While the peak of the foraging season is fall, Spera said mushroom foraging can be done between May and December in Maine. He noted that co-ops and specialty food stores often stock foraged mushrooms for the consumer who wants to try them at home.
"If nothing else [mushroom foraging] is a great way to get out and enjoy the Maine woods," he said.
Courier Publications reporter Jenna Lookner can be reached at 236-8511 email@example.com.