Edible Berkshires

Designer Mushrooms

It’s best to learn their mysteries from an expert

Austin Banach and Erhard Wendt at the Williamsville Inn
Austin Banach and Erhard Wendt at the Williamsville Inn

My knowledge of mushrooms early on consisted of the common everyday white button mushroom or an occasional portabella making its appearance from the sauté pan to top an omelet or burger. Shiitakes were the exotic mushrooms of my repertoire but still had sparse appearances. In the fall of 2009 I met chef Erhard Wendt, who leads classes and foraging walks to explore wild food in our area. The world of edible (and non-edible) fungi was unveiled to me along with their array of culinary applications. I will share with you a few of them—but not their remote locations.

Erhard grew up in Germany, where from an early age he foraged for mushrooms, berries and other wild edibles of the forest as they had significant importance to the cuisine of his region. After traveling and working through parts of the United States, Erhard and his wife, Kandy, found that the Berkshires reminded them most of their European background—especially the lush woods that Erhard loved. In 2002, they purchased and renovated the historic Williamsville Inn in West Stockbridge to share their passion for outstanding food and hospitality.

Over the past few years, when everyone was obsessed with foraging ramps and morels, I followed in their footsteps. I too took great pride in connecting to the land and cultivating something local (especially since I didn’t have a green thumb). Ramps grow like weeds in the woods around here. Morels, however, are more reclusive.

I had heard of Erhard and his classes and mushroom walks and decided to ask him for advice on where to find such specimens. With a little persistence, he agreed to take me with him on a trip in search of these beautiful honeycomb-shaped cones protruding from leaves, tree stumps and other camouflaged points.

Excursions down the road and through the seasons led to the golden yellow nugget chanterelle, an ebony silhouette of the black trumpet or the prized king bolete (more popularly known as the porcini) whose versatility is world-renowned.

As we shared a handful of trips, Erhard identified every mushroom we saw and warned me of the ones that were inedible. Some varieties of russulas were edible but less desirable such as a red variety of russula that tasted like a bitter and spicy chili pepper. He stressed a simple rule that I will also emphasize: “If you don’t know what it is, leave it alone and just take a picture.” I took pictures of every mushroom I encountered, 10 to 15 varieties: hen of the woods, chicken of the woods, shaggy mane, hedgehog, wood ear, lobster, oyster, puffballs, among more unidentified ones that all reside deep in the Berkshire mountain woods.

Another wild thing about mushrooms is that their appearances, taste and textures can imitate the least-expected things. Their names sometimes suggest this. The lobster mushroom does in fact have an essence and texture of shellfish. The dryad’s saddle, which grows in the shape suggested by its name on dying trees, has the immediate and unmistakable fragrance and flavor of watermelon rind. The appearance of the wood ear, hedgehog, shaggy mane and even the button mushroom were all apparently named appropriately from first glance too.

As mysterious, whimsical and varied as their names, so are some of their cooking applications. White puffball mushrooms can be sliced and breaded with an egg wash and breadcrumbs and have a meaty like texture. “I served this dish to a guest once and he swore it was the most tender veal that he ever had!” Erhard said. Recently at an upscale Chinese restaurant in Vermont I fell in love with a dish called “mock eel” that was nothing more than deep-fried and glazed shiitake mushrooms. Mushrooms can also be dried and used for enhancing flavors of soups, stews or other dishes. Dried mushroom powder is like a secret weapon in the kitchen for adding that savory punch.

Because of these mushroom-hunting excursions, now every time I feel hot and humid weather during or after a big rain I imagine the mushroom colonies sprouting up all over the woods, beckoning for me to drop whatever it is I’m doing, find them and photograph them. Although I do not intend to pursue mycology, I carry the pride and passion from what Erhard taught me a few years ago and, like him, will probably always have to live near woods for that reason.

Erhard and Kandy Wendt along with their two children, Sarah and Samuel, have owned and operated the Williamsville Inn since 2002. Erhard tends beautiful herb and vegetable gardens surrounding the historic inn, which complement his classic European-influenced cuisine. The inn also houses its own flock of chickens, ducks and geese. They serve dinner Thursdays through Sundays, June to August, and are open for dinner Fridays and Saturdays the remainder of the year. Reservations only. The inn hosts weddings and a series of cooking classes as well. WilliamsvilleInn.com

Designer Mushrooms