Muscoda mycophagist Dick Woppert is in fall mushroom heaven. After a four-year drought, last week he encountered a mighty mass of Armillaria mellea—better known as the honey mushroom—picking and processing over 50 pounds in two days.
“I haven’t seen any in four years and this year it’s the only mushroom I’ve seen,” Woppert said last Thursday from the deck of his Forest Road home, the picnic table covered with honey-colored mushrooms. “It’s very unusual because normally the woods are full of wild mushrooms this time of year.”
Woppert calls himself a mycophagist—“one that eats fungi”—because after 35 years of hunting wild mushrooms in rural Muscoda he has eaten over 40 varieties. That’s not to be confused with a mycologist, a biologist who specializes in fungi.
“I’m an artist, not a scientist,” he explains. “I’ve always been fascinated by everything nature. I got into art by observing nature. I’m not a hunter, but this is the kind of hunting I like to do. Oh, and they’re delicious.”
Woppert describes the taste of honey mushrooms as smoky and woodsy. “I’d have to say they have the best flavor dried of any wild mushroom,” he says. He enjoys them in scrambled eggs, soups and stews.
In addition to honey mushrooms, Woppert enjoys gathering and eating Chicken of the Woods, puffballs, elm caps (“meatiest”) and boletes or porcini (“The most sought after mushroom in the world”).
“Mushrooms are site specific,” he says. “Honey mushrooms are found on dead oak stumps and also called ‘stumpies.’ Elm caps can only be found in the knot of a box elder tree. Porcini caps grow under white pine trees, of which we have a lot in the Muscoda area, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy to find.”
Mushrooms are the above ground fruit of an underground fungi. In fact, the world’s largest living organism may be a 37-acre Armillaria fungus discovered in 1992 near Crystal Falls, Michigan in the Upper Peninsula which is estimated to be 1,500 years old.
Woppert stresses that all mushrooms are not made alike, especially the fall varieties that can look very much alike but have very different properties.
“You have to be careful, some can make you sick,” he says. “I have half a dozen books here at the house to help identify them. There’s also a website called mushroomidentificationforum that’s very helpful.”
Woppert says one good way to identify a wild mushroom is by making a spore print on a piece of white paper. With the mushroom placed on the paper spore side down, the spores fall out and make a distinctive pattern and color.
“Some are white, others black, pink or salmon. It’s one of the main identifying features of a mushroom,” he says. “About half of what I find I can’t identify. To be absolutely sure you need to examine the spores under a microscope.”
Once he has positively identified and gathered edible wild mushrooms, Woppert processes them back at his house. Smaller, round honey mushrooms are partially fried and frozen. Large, flat ones are dried in a food dehydrator and stored in quart-sized mason jars.
“To rehydrate them just put them in a bowl and pour some boiling water over them; they’ll pop right back,” he says. “I like to fry them in butter until crispy and serve them with scrambled eggs and onions. Oh boy!”
Woppert says the fall mushroom season is winding down, but he hopes to gather a few more batches before the first frost.
“The fall season can last until mid-October,” he says, “but with these 40-degree nights we’ve been having it doesn’t look good, even if we get more rain.”
But for a master mycophagist, there’s always next year, and many mushrooms to savor between now and then.