Colorado Chefs Are Foraging in the Mountains for This Magic Ingredient
Chad Scothorn wears two sets of work clothes. Mornings, he dons hiking pants and a long-sleeved shirt for mush- room-gathering missions in the mountains around Telluride. His pant legs are stained from kneeling on the duff, but the skin-covering, safari-style outfit protects against bug bites. “When the mushrooms are at their peak, the flies are pretty bad,” Scothorn explains.
Come afternoon, the 55-year-old scrubs the soil from his fingernails and exchanges his foraging garb for a starched white chef ’s jacket. On a good day, he will have stockpiled some 40 pounds of wild edible mushrooms that will accent that night’s dinner dishes at Cosmopolitan, the Telluride restaurant he opened after earning national acclaim at Chadwick’s and Beano’s Cabin ( both in Beaver Creek, Colorado). He dusts sea scallops with porcini powder before searing them, and makes mushroom-based vegetable stocks that stand in for beef broth. “People talk about the farm-to-table movement, but this is almost better,” Scothorn says. “You can’t get any more organic than wild-grown.”
With 300 to 400 types of mushrooms growing around Telluride, this mountain town has long been a hub for mushroom-lovers. The Telluride Mushroom Festival started in 1981 as a celebration of all things fungi, including the mind altering properties of some, but now instead showcases their culinary and reparative powers: Experts converge here every August to sup on shrooms (in 2015 La Marmotte chef Mark Reggiannini hosted a multi-course mushroom dinner for festival goers) and share developments in mycoremediation (the burgeoning science of using fungi to clean up environmental contaminants).
But Telluride holds no monopoly on mush- rooms: The whole state is a hotbed. More than 2,000 varieties have been identified, making it the second-largest concentration of edible mush- rooms in the United States (trailing the Pacific Northwest). And interest in them has never been greater, especially among gourmands.
“Mushrooms are on the upswing,” says Maggie Klinedinst, executive director of the Telluride Mushroom Festival. “They’ve become cool, almost a hipster thing, like pickling veggies and brewing your own kombucha.” Nationwide, more and more people are foraging for mushrooms or growing them themselves. “It’s part of the whole revival of farming and getting in touch with your food,” says Klinedinst. Many proponents are surprisingly young, in their 20s and 30s, Klinedinst says.
Scothorn was 36 when he started scavenging for mushrooms, having found himself in one of the nation’s richest hunting grounds. And with the most esteemed mushroom experts leading educational forays into Telluride’s forests every summer, Scothorn learned plenty. “I couldn’t have found that opportunity anywhere else in the world,” he says, having gleaned identification and harvesting techniques from the likes of Gary Lincoff (author of a host of books, including the Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms).
Scothorn collects his treasures in a box or paper bag—never plastic, which steams and smashes the ’shrooms. He cuts the mushrooms at ground level, rather than digging down into the soil and disturbing the sub-surface parent fungus (called the mycelium). And he carries a small sponge, like the ones painters use, to scrub each mushroom before adding it to his crate. By cleaning his mushrooms in the field rather than back in the kitchen, he keeps them from becoming impregnated with dirt and stimulates the next crop. “There’s a saying that if you field- clean your mushrooms, you help spread the spores,” he explains.
That’s key, given eaters’ voracious appetite for Colorado mushrooms. Its chanterelles have an incomparable apricot fragrance, and its porcinis are on par with Italy’s finest. After sampling them in Tuscany and around the world, Scothorn says, “Ours are the best.”
Word has gotten out. On summer afternoons, pickups sit parked along Colorado’s dirt byways. If the truck is muddy, with mismatched tires and West Coast license plates, “it’s probably a commercial picker,” says food writer Eugenia Bone, who divides her time between New York City and Crawford, Colorado. Professional foragers were sparse when she started foraging 15 years ago. Now, says Bone, “They’re really prevalent.” When the mushrooms appear, commercial pickers do, too, like a secondary crop. “They drive mushrooms to restaurants in Aspen or Telluride, or sell them to distributors,” says Bone. “We could be eating Colorado chanterelles in New York City.”
Bone discovered Colorado wild mushrooms before they got popular. One August evening, with remnants of the afternoon’s thundershower lingering in the air, she hiked up Mendicant Ridge east of Crawford. “There were porcini every- where,” she recalls. Having noticed them once, she started seeing them everywhere she hiked. “It’s the excitement of pattern recognition,” Bone explains. “You see nothing, then you notice a few, and boom! You notice hundreds.”
She had eaten porcini in Italy, and as a child growing up in an Italian-American household. Her father often went foraging (the only “outdoorsy” thing the family ever did, says Bone) and later in- cluded those mushrooms in roasted rabbit dishes or pasta with shrimp and mushrooms, which he called mare et monte. “Italians are mycophiles,” says Bone, who wrote about foraging in her book, Mycophilia, and heads up the New York Mycological Society.
Americans, meanwhile, have greeted mush- rooms with more skepticism—at least until recently. Many U.S. kids grew up hearing that they shouldn’t touch any wild mushrooms, and Americans often avoid mushrooms on the dinner plate, too. But, says Bone, “The millennial generation is much hipper to wild edibles than my baby boomer generation. They are really smart about the possibilities, not as fearful.”
One such millennial is Graham Steinruck. The slender 29-year-old led foraging tours for resorts in Aspen and Vail before launching Hunt & Gather Wildcrafted Foods. He still takes inquisitive clients on mushroom hunts; plus, his Denver-based company supplies wild, foraged edibles to restaurants around the state.
“A lot of people think of Colorado as a desert,” Steinruck says. But along with its arid zones, Colorado also contains plenty of snow- and rain-soaked high country. The various elevations create a diversity of ecosystems, which helps explain Colorado’s mushroom bonanza. “More ecosystems equal more mushrooms,” says Steinruck, who’s personally eaten more than 60 species—and counting—of Colorado mushrooms. “There are lots of edibles that aren’t as highly regarded as the porcini but are delicious if prepared in the right way,” he explains.
Along with variety, Colorado also produces great numbers of edibles. That’s because within each ecosystem, there can be great uniformity of species: Vast stands of pure Englemann spruce give rise to thick clusters of porcini (which typically grow beneath spruces). “In the East, if you find a couple of chanterelles, you’re quite happy,” says mushroom authority Lincoff. But in Colorado, he’s encountered bogglingly vast swaths of them. “It looks like the ground is carpeted with gold, as far as you can see,” Lincoff says.
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“These are gorgeous things,” he continues. Mushrooms’ rich reds, oranges and yellows combine with intriguing surface textures to create truly compelling eye-candy. And unlike birds that fly away when spotted, mushrooms stand still, allowing ad- mirers to photograph them, collect them—and eat them. “There’s a pleasure in this that nothing else compares with,” Lincoff says.
As for mushrooms being dangerous, or that it’s hard to tell safe edibles from unsafe ones—both are misconceptions, says Lincoff. Kind of. “Stick to learning the few edible mushrooms that are easy to know and that have few, if any, look alikes, and that you can find in large quantities,” he says. Then, you can appreciate mushrooms not just by sight, but by their intense, earthy taste. Says Bone, “I look at these mushrooms as being a real part of the Colorado culinary estate.”
Quite a few Colorado chefs forage for mushrooms, though not everyone is willing to share their treasures with customers. Shawn Lawrence, executive chef at Aspen’s 39 Degrees, started foraging as a kid in the Midwest and continues his hunts now that he lives in the Roaring Fork Valley. Each foray is a party of sorts, with friends and family members combining forces to collect chanterelles, porcinis, even morels (though these spring delicacies prefer river valleys, which tend to be privately owned). They rarely appear on the 39 Degrees menu. “They’re too much of a love for me to sell them,” Lawrence says. Instead, he freezes and dries them, and preserves young porcini by turning them into a confit—all of which he keeps to himself.
Other Aspen chefs, such as Chris Lanter at Cache Cache and Tiziano Gortan at L’Hostaria, will occasionally share their foraged treasures with diners. But it’s not as common as you’d expect. Most health department regulations frown on cooking wild mushrooms of uncertain origin. About five years ago, Telluride established a certification program that lets Scothorn and other chefs serve mushrooms. Before any foraged edibles arrive on diners’ plates, Telluride inspector John Sir Jesse (who also leads foraging tours) examines them and deems them safe enough for public consumption.
Few communities have established inspection systems like Telluride’s. In the past, authorities paid little attention to foraged edibles or their regulation. But as interest in wild mushrooms grows, so does the push to enforce public health guidelines, says Steinruck, whom the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has approved as a “Wild Mushroom Identification Expert,” which allows him to inspect foraged, wild mushrooms sold to the food industry.
Regulations aside, wild mushrooms’ limited availability also explains their infrequent menu appearances. They only appear from late July through early September, and gathering them requires a lot of legwork for modest yields. That’s why Vail chef/ forager Jean-Michel Chelain of The Left Bank rarely puts them on his menu, preferring to cook them by special request. “If it’s mushroom season, I usually have a few chanterelles or porcini in the kitchen,” he says.
Also in Vail, Restaurant Kelly Liken boosts its wild mushroom offerings by buying from local foragers. “Some, we have been buying from for years,” says Liken. The restaurant’s chef de cuisine, Matt Limbaugh, is also a dedicated forager and “always finds the best mushrooms,” attests Liken. Consequently, her restaurant is consistently able to feature wild mushrooms on its menu, in such seasonal dishes as roasted duck breast with chanterelles and fig jam, or ricotta and Swiss chard agnolotti with wild mushrooms and peas.
“Wild mushrooms taste like the forest they grow in,” says Lawrence, who prefers not to overpower the distinct character of Colorado mushrooms by smothering them with competing flavors. “Mushrooms that grow here definitely taste more piney than ones from other parts of the world,” he explains. His favorite preparation for Colorado chanterelles, for example, is to simply sauté them with olive oil, garlic and fresh thyme. And when those delicacies have been located and gathered by you and your friends, says Lawrence, “It’s a true umami feeling.”