There’s a funny mushroom growing all over the conifer forest behind our house at 11,000 feet above Fairplay, Colorado. It is light pink/peach in color, similar to a white person’s flesh, but cracked on the surface, like an overworked foot. As this mushroom ages, a green mold takes hold amidst the cracks and on the surface and the mushroom itself gets firm and tough.
Does this sound appetizing? Because we’ve been really excited about eating this mushroom lately.
An Albatrellus a Day
The mushroom is Albatrellus confluens. Vera Stucky Evenson describes it in similar terms to mine but without the human body part analogies in Mushrooms of Colorado and the Southern Rocky Mountains (1997). A former name for the same mushroom is Polyporus confluens, according to Michael Kuo (2007) at mushroomexpert.com.
It is a polypore, family Polyporaceae—which means “having many pores” as opposed to gills. The porous undersides of our guys’ amorphous caps are white and contain, as Evenson describes, “tubes with tiny, white, rounded pores descending thick stalks” that looks like a thin white sponge. They grow “in confluent masses” meaning many altogether; we find them in clumps. Furthermore, Evenson says the “weathered caps are often tinged with a green, moldy surface growth.”
We saw these guys all the time last fall during the dawn of my interest in mushrooms, but did not know they were edible until Gregg gave me Evenson’s book for my birthday.
Albatrellus confluens is found specifically at high elevation under conifers, according to coloradomushrooms.com. The mushrooms are purported to smell “sweet and fruity,” but to my undistinguished sniffer they smell mushroomy and good, like some kind of mushroom I’d consider eating, excessive green mold and worms notwithstanding.
Soft Flesh is Food for Many
For my first trial, then, I aimed for the young, soft mushrooms. Unfortunately, the worms seemed bent upon doing the same. It had been dry for a while at this point, and each time I cut a few small, young mushrooms from their clusters at the base with a knife, I flipped them over only to discover tiny translucent worms wiggling out of the many holes in the stalk. The worms seem to start in the stalk and move out to the cap, though I have seen decay holes in caps with clean stalks too. Luckily, there were a few whose caps remained relatively unaffected.
It’s hard to tell if a mushroom is going to be wormy before cutting it. At first I tried inspecting each one on my hands and knees, making an effort to judge the extent of the worm invasion by the number of tiny holes in the cap. My technique evolved over the past week to making a thin slice at the outer edge to see how far the worms had colonized a given mushroom before deciding whether or not to take the whole thing or just to drop the cut cap piece into my bag.
That first day I refrigerated my Albatrellus finds and waited for Gregg to join me on mission #2. He had better luck than I, nabbing three small mushrooms with narry a worm hole to be found as we perused the forested property behind our house.
Back in the kitchen I processed both batches, throwing away numerous worm-affected chunks but getting about ¼ cup of clean cap and stalk pieces for our first culinary trial.
Yet to Find the Foul in Albatrellus
By all accounts, Albatrellus confluens is supposed to be an inferior mushroom. Evenson says it is latently bitter, and Michael Kuo says it tastes “mild or cabbage-like and slightly foul.” Slightly foul? That did not sound promising.
We sliced the salvaged parts thin, sautéed them in butter—and found them to be surprisingly good!
On August 1 we gathered more, including one that was almost the size of my hand and looked fresh but turned out to be wormy in the stalk and discolored with miniscule worm holes throughout. We were hoping to find an older one so we could test the “bitter” principle—but the older ones were wormy and the pieces we did manage to salvage on the second go-round were yummy too.
What are we doing wrong?
Yesterday afternoon we gathered a third batch of A confluens. They seemed to enjoy the heavy rain of the night before, as they were up in bigger, more amorphous clumps. Right after the rain but before colonization occurs seems like the best time to get them, as most of this batch was worm-free. Gregg discovered that the less cracked the mushroom’s surface, the younger and possibly less wormified it would be, so he aimed for the smoothest ones he could find and that seemed to work well. We probably got a whole cup of mushrooms when all was sliced and done.
I sautéed that last batch with onions and the result was so good that, after dinner and two wild edible gin and tonics later we went on a slightly intoxicated mission into the fading light to gather more A. confluens before the worms could get at them.
My friend Butterpoweredbike believes that if you voice the word “mushroom” while hunting them, the edible fungus will hide and you won’t find any. On the other hand, Gregg and I like to creep through the woods calling to them softly: “Mushrooms, mushrooms, where are you?”
After stumbling upon some newly fruiting big brown gilled brown mushrooms last night, Gregg began to preach about his technique. “You can’t look for them; you just have to let them attract you to where they are,” he lectured. “You have to have a very loose hold on your decision-making.” I see. But last night’s dusk mushroom mission was a successful one, so who knows—perhaps it was due to the “loose hold” on decision-making that the gin had rendered unto me.
We foraged another good batch of Albatrellus, and in the process spied not one but two big lumbering porcupines, each of which Gregg found necessary to chase through the woods like a little kid. And I stumbled upon a half-melted bolete—a Leccinum fibrillosum, we think, the Leccinum that is associated with conifers and not with random poisonings, as the aspen-associated Leccinums have become.
So it’s mushroom season up here, finally—a happy realization that is further bolstered by last night’s second round of strong rain.
I’d been kicking around nickname ideas for A. confluens, as I have been unable thus far to find a common name for the mushroom.
I wanted to call them “brain mushrooms” on account of their color and amorphous, cracked appearance, but apparently the poisonous false morel Gyromitra esculenta already has that nickname, looking much more like a brain than Albatrellus with its copious folds of flesh, so I’m going to need another one. I thought of “cracked pink peach mushroom” and “cracked human flesh mushroom,” but Gregg thinks they look more orange than pink and furthermore refuses to eat any if I refer to them as “human flesh.”
Michael Kuo at mushroomexpert.com describes A. confluens as having “a beautiful pale orange cap, a creamy pore surface with tiny pores, a sturdy stem, and a white spore print.” Beautiful, eh? Maybe I’d just been looking at them wrong.
Yesterday as we crept joyfully through the forest, the name “pinkies” occurred to me, and Gregg appeared momentarily satisfied. Later in the day, however, he decided that no, we would call them Albatrellus and leave it at that.
The name evokes “albatross” for me, like I’m eating the pink flesh of the seabird—though I guess that works in place of “flesh mushroom” anyway. One way or another, I would be remiss to spend my days fighting the boyfriend over mushroom monikers of my own invention when they in fact have their own name already.