The first mushroom bonanza formed the idea of the thing, created a precedent for all others. They were aspen boletes, which I never saw in the wild but W. hunted on a glacier trail in Juneau last year with a friend. They went back armed with loads of cardboard boxes and filled them all. It took days to clean and dry them all, a year to eat the small concentrated bag we took with us to Madison. While they were drying, while others were waiting on newspapers and in boxes to be dried, we ate a Slavic yogurt soup with mushrooms floating in it; it could not be simpler or more divine.
Because of that the boletes were the Ur-mushroom in my mind. As you know the porcino, queen of mushrooms, is a bolete. So about a month ago, when I discovered a wood that was scattered with them — all over, so many underfoot I couldn’t help but step on some of them — I thought my life charmed. I discovered the boletes at the same time as the mosquitos discovered me, about two steps into the forest. They were the worst I can remember encountering; it is hard to to believe they are crepuscular feeders, because in broad daylight I was losing blood by the micropint every second. The DEET was a cruel joke, and I took to spraying it directly onto the bugs in the air, not because it seemed to deter them one whit, but just out of spite. I collected three basketfuls of boletes, and some frilly chanterelles that grew on the hillside to boot.
They were impossible to see unless I stalked them, or saw their yellow bellies from underneath, if I were looking up the hill at them. They were sticky-topped, covered with brown leaves and dirt of exactly their color, and every part of them stained deep blue with the slightest touch. They had thin stalks, not the bulbous soup-stockers of Boletus edulis. I began to realize they were not the Ur-mushroom, thinking of what it would take to clean them, but their smell was heady and animalic like porcini.
At home I found it or its kin being called a “dirty bolete,” as Michael Kuo said — Boletus pulverulentus. He describes its taste as “undistinctive.” And as they turned to total slime from washing or even touching them, I began to wonder whether I had duped myself. Then fried a few, and was glad I did. The blue goes away then. So does the slime. The meaty flavor remains. I dried the rest, hoping to kill the slime.
A week later I was out with the Wisconsin Mycological Society’s fungus veterans, and startled to learn that none of them had much good to say about boletes. And after I found the first crop of huge ones in the forest, I learned why. They were rosy-topped, bulbous, huge, growing in perfect clusters — untouched by the beetles that had dismantled so many of my dirty little ones — and the reason why is that they were unbearably bitter.
The WMS veterans nodded, bored at the lack of chanterelles thus far, and mentioned that’s what boletes were usually like in this part of Wisconsin. Beautiful but, with a few exceptions, inedible.
They also concurred with my decision to dry the ones I’d found. The question remains whether I have cleaned them sufficiently. Grit in the mushrooms can ruin the prize.
That day with the WMS at Kettle Moraine we found little of note — until I fell behind the pack and came upon a new Ur-mushroom: a nearly inexhaustible vein of golden chanterelles, which will wait for another post.