The Russula

A couple thousand species of mushroom inhabit our region, quickly perplexing the budding enthusiast. Most people give up once familiar with chanterelles, morels, and shaggy manes. However, there are certain groups of mushrooms that can be approached by broad rules. This is a critical step in your studies, reducing the drudgery of hours buried in dichotomous keys, and thus amplifying enjoyment. The mycological community discourages this tact, fearing humans’ capacity for poor decision-making and the potential for lawsuits, mycophobia, and death. Understandably. In my opinion, this fear is trumped by the importance of dispersing knowledge.

The genus Russula is a perfect example of the broad-stroke approach to sleuthing edibles. They are unique because of a cellular structure that makes them crumbly and joyously explosive when thrown. The brittle texture results in stems breaking like chalk and gills shattering when touched. The appearance is like watercolor over a blank canvas, often with a touch of similar color running through the white stalk. They arise late summer to early fall and are identified to species by stature, staining reaction, microscopic features, and a dizzying array of colors that often overlap. Identification from the 750-plus members can be humorously impossible, especially with the effects of age, location, and weather. But the fabulous rule eliminating all this ambiguity is a simple taste test. After verifying the genus, take a bite and chew. Keep masticating for a bit. If the taste becomes strongly and unpleasantly peppery, abort. If not acrid, swallow (and cook the rest — all mushrooms should be cooked before eating). The toxic Russulas, with a few exceptions, merely create a biliousness in your belly, and even some of those are pickled and eaten by the iron-stomached Russians.

This family is the sole provider of nutrients to the ghost plant — the white asparagus-looking anomaly in summer forests. These nonphotosynthesizing plants shed their greenness thanks to the support of Russulas, which willingly and mysteriously provide them with sugars gathered from trees. Some Russulas are highly adept at concentrating zinc, lead, and mercury, which is why it’s recommended not to consume wild mushrooms near roadsides and other potentially contaminated areas. Another noteworthy factoid is that several species are evolving into puffballs, having “decided” it’s a more effective way to disperse spores than with a cap and gills.

Russulas are symbiotic with many trees in the Northwest and can be found in great abundance. The flavor is mild and clean and the texture snappy, more like a vegetable than a fungus. This makes them candidates for those who don’t like to eat mushrooms. Russulas are not cherished in the U.S. but have been harvested for thousands of years around the globe. An exception is Lobster mushrooms. You may have seen these mutated orange fungi in local markets. They are a hefty Russula covered by a parasite, transforming it from blasé to gourmet. Pink and red Russulas tend to be peppery and can be avoided to minimize the tingly sensation dominating your tongue. The finest are purple and green varieties. One that is bland but common in the Northwest is the short-stemmed Russula. It is ideal for woodland battles. Long before paintball guns, it was used in the ancient art of running sideways while lobbing harmless objects at one’s opponent. When throwing mushrooms, feel no guilt besides the sacrilege of beauty; you are dispersing spores.

Identifying Attributes: Often bright-colored caps on a white background. Brittle. No ring on stem. Medium to large in size.

Cautionary Points: Learn the genus well before applying the taste test. Avoid pink and red members and most importantly specimens that stain red or black when touched and are so firm they feel hard — the dangerous ones.

Culinary Attributes: Snappy and of a cleaner flavor than other mushrooms. Pleasing in a subtle way like starches can be. Green- and purple-tinted kinds are the best flavored.

Wine Pairings: Champagne. //

Kelly Chadwick is an arborist and owner of Spirit Pruners. He grew up wandering the outdoors, which led to a lifelong passion for the natural sciences. He wrote about bunchberries in August.

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