PURGATORY AT DURANGO MOUNTAIN RESORT – Several people found puffballs, or maybe some artist’s conks – but the lucky ones found enormous hawks wings, highly prized king boletes or the ever-coveted Rocky Mountain chanterelles. They proudly showed off their take, and put them in their baskets.
About 30 mushroom lovers gathered Sunday at the top of Purgatory at Durango Mountain Resort in the San Juan National Forest to follow the lead of locally renowned mycology authority Chris Ricci of Majesty Mushrooms.
Ricci, who said he fell in love with mushrooms through his mother’s cooking, has spent his life studying the varieties growing in forests across the nation.
“It helped to live in some of the mushroom hot spots of North America, like the Smoky Mountains, or Appalachia, or the Pacific Northwest,” he said, while casually strolling through gladed Colorado forests under thundering a sky at 9,000 feet.
Ricci began studying mycology in his youth, bringing home specimens to identify.
“I’d bring them home and put them on wax paper,” he said. “It took me years before I absolutely, positively identified a mushroom, and then another year or two before, I absolutely, positively identified a mushroom I could eat. You have to learn each one, and that’s how I learned them, one by one.”
While gatherers dispersed slowly into the woods, baskets in hand, a steady stream would rush back to him with their finds, asking what this was or that, if it’s edible or not. To anyone interested, he unleashed an encyclopedic wealth of information.
“I want people to be in the forest,” he said. “To learn about the forest and the carbon cycle, which is what mushrooms really are all about – recycling carbon.”
Surrounded by tall spruce and fur and standing on a carpet of lush undergrowth, Ricci explained the role of the much-overlooked fungus.
“It’s really important to understand the carbon cycle,” he said. “You’ve got the CH and the O – the carbohydrates – the sugars, and that’s what these mushrooms are doing, trading sugar – carbohydrates – with the trees. A whole host of these mushrooms are actually breaking down the carbs stored in wood of the tree to turn it back into soil and carbon dioxide in the air.”
Sarah Wright, a self-described jack-of-all-trades with Durango Natural Foods Co-op who puts on the series of educational walks and talks from alternative health care to homemade condiments, said people return for Ricci’s hunts.
“That’s the way this class is, people tend to come back,” she said. “He’s very knowledgeable.”
Most were hopeful for a few handfuls of chanterelles, and many were rewarded. The king boletes, sizable dark orange dense things, also called porcinis, were carried out by a few happy hunters.
Ingrid Lincoln, of Mancos, said she couldn’t wait to sauté hers with oil and onions.
“Slice them into thin, little slices,” she said. “They’re so delicious.”
Ricci called them the little pork steaks of the forest.
Not only do many find mushrooms tasty, they see other benefits.
“A lot of these mushrooms aid our immune systems,” Ricci said. “They’re anti-viral.”
Some studies show eating mushrooms can reduce growth of cancer cells.
“I’m trying not to confuse people. It’s important for people to know to not eat mushrooms that you haven’t identified,” Ricci said. “It’s important to be safe. There are some poisonous mushrooms out there – not very many, but it only takes one bad mushroom.”
While toadstools seem to hide in plain sight, edible or not, Ricci’s fascination with them is easy to find. A member of the group approached him with an exotically odd, colorful specimen.
“Amanita muscaria,” Ricci said. “The reindeer mushroom.”
He said the reindeer had ceremonial purposes but knows they aren’t good eating. The Rocky Mountains hold at least 14 varieties, however, that are.
“I just love finding them and eating them,” he said, “and before I knew it, I knew them all.”