Matt and I decided on a hike for our mutual day off a couple of weeks ago which happened to land on Halloween. We randomly picked out a trail on the internet and ended up at the Rockland Preserve Trail in Scotland which is a small rural Connecticut town in Windham county. There was a pretty lake abutting the parking area and after careful consideration of the various trails, a decision was made to follow the trail that went around the lake. We gauged the trek would be approximately three and a half miles. No problem, except we are both apparently really bad guagers. According to my pedometer phone app, we hiked over 13,000 steps (a new unplanned record!) so it was more like six miles.
The trails were strewn with mounds of large moss covered stones which made navigating a bit tricky, but it was a lovely day– not too cold or too hot, and we had a mission.
On the way to the preserve, Matt suddenly pulled the car over to the side of a wooded roadway.
“Hang on,” he said and got out of the car.
I turned to see where he was heading but by the time I did so, he was already gone. Where did he go? I waited a few minutes and just as I had decided that the Lovers Lane Serial Killer of urban legend had hooked him good and was coming for me next, he emerged from the woods carrying a large white…something. Triumphantly, he opened the car door and exclaimed,
“Chicken of the woods!”
No, not me. Chicken of the Woods is a type of edible mushroom that grows at the base of both living and dead trees and Matt had spotted a great heaping mass of them. They were cool and creamy to the touch and to the eye largely grotesque; but oh, man, chicken of the woods mushrooms are quite delicious and considered a delicacy to some. So with that big fungus now among us, a scavenger hunt was born.
Armed with just a plastic bag and a jackknife, we set out with eyes peeled for lots more mushroom sightings. When the trail was less rocky, it was covered with crunchy autumn leaves. Our feet moved through the piles like oars in a river. We soon became adept at spotting the nestled orbs under leaves, growing in clusters on fallen trees and beneath tree bark upon weathered tree stumps. Soon our plastic bag was weighed down with an abundance of woodsy scented mushrooms. As we had never foraged before, we knew that we had to be 100 percent certain that the mushrooms were edible. Anything less, and we could end up violently ill or worse…dead.
As luck would have it, we happened upon two fellow hikers donned from head to toe in what I would call the Lands End Mushroom Foragers Collection: sherpa fleece pullovers, cargo pants and wicker hand baskets. They asked if we were out looking for mushrooms and we admitted that it was our first time. Unlike a fisherman who will never disclose a good fishing spot, these two guys were happy to share their knowledge and passion for all things mushrooms. First off, we should never use a plastic bag as the mushrooms can quickly begin to sweat and will turn to mush. As it was not a hot and humid day, our mushrooms were okay. One look in the bag and some concerned tsk-tsks were emitted by the hiker named Robert. He spoke with a Hungarian accent and informed us that there was a bad mushroom in our lot. He went on to impart that porous mushrooms are always edible while their gilled counterparts not always so. He and his family were avid foragers and had a blog, The 3 Foragers that could provide us with lots more useful information. After some more chat and foraging tips, we thanked them and went our separate ways.
Three hours later, our fruitful forage came to an end. On our way home, we decided to stop in Willimantic for dinner at CafeMantic, a well-reviewed restaurant that we had brunched at previously. As we neared our destination, we noticed there was a police car diverting traffic. A portion of Main Street was shut down to allow for a town and small business celebration of Halloween. We parked on a side street and made our way to the cafe walking amid ghosts, ninja turtles and creepy clowns. It was early and the restaurant nearly empty. We had our pick of tables and chose a window seat to continue watching the odd display of trick or treaters. Our cat-costumed waitress handed us some menus and we started to peruse our choices. Another serendipitous moment came when lo and behold there was a Chicken of the Woods mushroom special on the menu. We ordered a few different small plates including the Hen of the Woods Mushroom in Chicken Jus with Black Garlic Emulsion. The mushroom dish was earthy and dense but light and silky on the palate and the chicken jus was absolutely delectable. It was the perfect conclusion to a day filled with tricks and treats. And a new pastime was formed.
Have any good spots for finding mushrooms in the area? Let me know!