You probably know the image of a mushroom with a bright red cap adorned with little white spots. That’s because this depiction of a mushroom seems like it’s out of an old fairy tale or, these days, a Nintendo game. But this fantastical mushroom does in fact exist in the real world; it’s known as an amanita muscaria, or more commonly as the fly agaric. And amongst the mycology community — the one concerned with the study of fungi — this mushroom has been deemed poisonous, regardless of how whimsical it looks.
Of course, not all mushrooms are harmful; there are hundreds of varieties out there, and many are safely edible raw or if prepared correctly. I learned this all from John SirJessie, a certified mushroom inspector, who led a foraging excursion as part of an outdoor pop-up dinner I attended, hosted by the Hotel Madeline in Telluride, CO.
It takes a little knowledge to separate the flavorful from the toxic — especially when sorting through the hundreds of species of russula. “Once you know it’s a russula, you can taste it. If it tastes peppery on the tip of your tongue within a minute or so, don’t eat it. If it’s not peppery, you can eat it,” SirJessie taught us. “Being a gilled mushroom, there’s a lot of look-a-likes, so it’s not an easy task.”
Fortunately, we had his expertise to guide us through the forest and meadow as we foraged for edibles that grow at an elevation of 10,230 ft. We gathered all kinds of mushrooms — russulas, hawk wings, chanterelles and copper tops, to name a few. We even took a couple of the red-capped fly agarics with us; though poisonous, they’re fun to look at — plus they’d led us to some nice porcinis, which we gathered as well.
The chefs of the Hotel Madeline took our bounty of fungi and combined them with the other ingredients they’d brought to make an exquisite six-course meal — each dish paired with a fine complementary wine. However, a couple of mushrooms were left on the display table — the red fly agarics — and my curiosity started to get hungry.
“If you boil it at least twenty minutes — some say once, some say twice, change the water and boil it again — then it’s perfectly edible,” SirJessie told me. “It destroys all the toxins.”
However, Chef Patrick Laguens smiled and said to me, “If you were to eat the red mushroom and you weren’t to boil it, you just need to throw up in a certain period of time, so you don’t die. Otherwise, it’s a fun night.”
I wasn’t quite ready for an unpredictable “fun night” — fly agarics are known by some for their psychoactive trips, after all — and so I boiled the red magical mushroom as instructed. After the first 20-minute boil, all of the poisonous red coloring was gone, but I dumped the broth and started another boil with fresh water to be safe.
The end result was a much smaller mushroom, shriveled but supposedly safe to eat. I cut myself a piece, put in my mouth, and survived. The texture wasn’t unlike anything I’d had before; in fact, after all that, its texture and taste reminded me of generic canned button mushrooms you get on a slice of pizza. (Verdict: Two out of five stars.)
With that said, preparing this particular poisonous mushroom for consumption might not be worth your time — because you’ll still need to spend more time to sauté them in butter afterwards, if you want to really make them tasty.
Erik Trinidad is the author of Fancy Fast Food: Ironic Recipes with No Bun Intended, based off his popular food humor blog.