Iliana Antonova : Mushroom Forager
Full disclosure: I’ve always wanted to be a mushroom forager. Not only do I love mushrooms (both edible and psychedelic), but also the lifestyle that comes with it. Roaming through forests and scouring meadows deep into the woods looking for food seems like the perfect job, and a healthy one too. The ritual of picking, cleaning, cataloguing and then cooking or preserving the mushrooms you have just picked is quite the rewarding experience. I’ve done it a few times, but need to set more time aside to properly learn to identify this potentially lethal craft.
I was looking for someone to lead me on a forage and stumbled across Iliana’s Instagram accountI was struck by beautiful photos of morels, boletus, chanterelles, puffballs and other wonderful fungi being picked in the serenity of Quebec’s forests. I wanted to know more.
I remember being awestruck at a very young age of my father’s ability to identify an incredibly broad range of species with complete confidence, despite never having studied mycology.
oenopole: How did you get into mushroom foraging Iliana?
Iliana Antonova: I was born and raised in Bulgaria. One of my earliest memories is of my father and I picking mushrooms in the old growth oak forests surrounding our house. I remember being awestruck at a very young age of my father’s ability to identify an incredibly broad range of species with complete confidence, despite his never having studied mycology. For this reason, I have always loved the notion of the ‘amateur’ as it relates mushroom hunting. To be an expert in this field requires an intense familiarity with your surroundings gleaned from a sustained sense of curiosity and attuned attention to subtle shifts in the environment.
oe: How does one learn to forage for mushrooms?
IA: The best way to learn is through hands on experience. The art of mushroom identification extends far beyond the observation of physical characteristics. You really need to smell, touch, and take note of environmental factors in order to identify a mushroom correctly- and this takes a lot of practice!
Going into the forest with an experienced mushroom hunter is definitely a good first step. Your local Mushroom Society is a terrific resource. Personally, I chose to undertake the task of learning independently at a slow and steady pace. When I first began the process, I would go into the woods and bring home a few varied species of mushrooms from each expedition. I would then study and attempt to identify each specimen with the help of guidebooks. My go-to is the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms. Also, anything written by David Arora and Paul Stamets is a wonderful introduction.
oe: Do you forage for other things besides mushrooms?
IA: Hunting for mushrooms has certainly spawned an interest for other wild edibles. I love collecting fiddleheads and ramps in early spring. I also enjoy harvesting wild herbs, such as mint, linden, and sumac, which I dry out and use in teas during the winter months. Concocting various potions made up of all the lovely things I’ve picked during the summer months makes me feel like a witch! I should also mention that responsible/ sustainable foraging practices are super important to me. Educate yourself and respect limitations before picking anything from the wild. Ramps, as an example, used to be ‘ramp-ant’ in Quebec, but sadly that’s no longer the case due to massive commercial overharvesting.
Mushroom hunters never reveal their most treasured spots! But I will say that some of my favourite locations in Quebec are in the Laurentians because the terrain is so varied and enjoyable to traverse.
oe: How does the notion of terroir apply to mushrooms? Climate, soil, type of forest, temperature, time of year, etc.?
IA: Mushroom hunting requires a comprehensive knowledge not only of the organism but also its habits and preferred habitats. These vary greatly from one mushroom species to the next. It is important to understand that there are a few primary groups of fungi, but the two that are of particular interest to the mushroom hunter are saprophytic and mycorrhizal mushrooms.
Saprophytic mushrooms are the ‘decomposers’. This category includes oyster mushrooms, shiitake, maitake, as well as the common button mushroom. Most of these mushrooms thrive on decaying wood and debris, which they gradually break down and transform into nutrient rich soil. Although saprophytic mushrooms are abundant in the wild, they can be successfully farmed by simulating preferred habitats within a sterile environment year-round. For this reason, these mushrooms are generally easier to acquire and cheaper to buy.
Mycorrhizal mushrooms, on the other hand, cannot be farmed and can only be found in the wild. They include species such as chanterelles, boletus, and matsutake. They have complex and mutually beneficial relationships with trees. The mushroom provides the tree with moisture, nutrients, and even information in exchange for sugars via a vast underground network of thread-like mycelium. Because certain mushroom species tend to prefer partnering up with specific tree species, your best bet in finding mushrooms is to look for their preferred tree hosts.
Mushrooms are also very particular about when they fruit; different species have different seasons. Fruiting is also generally encouraged by moisture. Waiting a few days after rain before going out into the woods is always a good strategy. An experienced mushroom hunter seeks out environment. Morels for example, only fruit for a few weeks in May. They have symbiotic relationships with apple trees and often fruit in abundance when these trees are in distress. So, when searching for those tasty morels, look for dying apple trees in May after a good rain, preferably on a south-facing slope where the soil is getting the maximum amount of sun!
oe: It seems that certain cultures appreciate mushrooms more than others, do you agree?
IA: That’s certainly true. Eugenia Bone recently published a book entitled Mycophilia, which is a super interesting read and sheds light onto the North American stigmatization of fungi. Her research focuses around the extremely varied cultural attitudes towards mushrooms. The North American disposition has in general been one of fear and skepticism, while in Italy, France and Eastern Europe, wild mushrooms are highly sought-after and celebrated. Eastern cultures have relied on the medicinal properties of mushrooms for millennia. We have yet to tap into this vast knowledge and the best way to get over the phobia relating to the unknown is to become informed.
NEVER ingest anything you are unsure of! Consuming poisonous mushrooms is incredibly dangerous.
oe: How dangerous can foraging be? Have you ever been poisoned (and obviously) lived to tell the tale?
IA: NEVER ingest anything you are unsure of! Consuming poisonous mushrooms is incredibly dangerous. As an example, the destroying angel (Aminita bisporigera) is a very inconspicuous looking white mushroom which is common in Quebec. It’s undeniably beautiful and elegant, yet a single mushroom contains enough toxins to entirely destroy your liver. This being said, of the thousands of species of mushrooms that grow in North America, there are only a handful that can cause serious poisoning. Learning to identify the most dangerous species just as important as learning to identify the edibles. I have never been poisoned, but I also take great care in ensuring that I am entirely confident in my identification of every single mushroom I pick. When I’m asked questions pertaining to mushroom poisoning, I always think of the American composer John Cage who was an incredibly passionate mushroom hunter and was one of the founding members of the New York Mycological Society. During the 60’s, he made his living by supplying major New York restaurants with his mushrooms. Although he claimed he was never poisoned by mushrooms, he did once seriously poison his entire dinner party with a dish of misidentified skunk cabbage, which turned out to be the incredibly toxic hellabore. ALWAYS be sure when consuming any wild edibles. It’s certainly not worth risking it.
oe: What are your favourite mushrooms and why?
IA: I love them all!!! But seriously, If I had to choose one it would be the morel. I love its bizarre brainy texture. It’s such a versatile mushroom to cook with and its fragrance and flavour are unlike anything else. Morels are the first choice edibles to emerge in the spring. For me, they represent a beacon of hope after the long winter months. I love hunting for morels because they are such ingenious masters of disguise! They blend in perfectly with the surrounding leaf litter and debris, but once you spot one, your pattern recognition sets in and you begin to spot them everywhere. Although morels commonly grow alongside certain tree species, they also love to fruit on burn sites. For this reason, mushroom hunters flock to forest fire sites in the spring to harvest morels. They are the first signs of life in a disaster zone and they help to lay down the groundwork for regrowth. I find that to be incredibly poetic!
oe: What’s your take on psychedelic mushrooms? Yours truly used to eat A LOT of them once upon a time, the little brown ones from BC were my fave!
IA: I’m in no way opposed to the use of recreational psychedelic mushrooms. I’m also very interested in the idea that mushrooms could potentially act as effective natural alternatives to pharmaceuticals in treating psychological ailments. There are hundreds of species of hallucinogenic mushrooms, most of which we know very little about. Each species carries a unique set of toxins which have the ability to alter ones state of consciousness in a variety of ways. An interesting example is the Fly Agaric (Aminita Muscaria), recognizable as the classic bright red mushroom with white patches often depicted in fairy-tale illustrations. The fly agaric is a powerful psychedelic which has been used for centuries in Siberia for it’s mind-altering properties. One of its hallucinogenic effects is to dramatically distort an individual’s sense of scale, making objects appear much larger or smaller than they normally would (hence the tale of Alice in Wonderland).
oe: Where is the best place to buy wild mushrooms? Do you sell any of the mushrooms you pick ?
IA: I sell directly to a few restaurants in Montreal, like Lawrence, and will be working with Emma at Nora Gray and Charles-Antoine at Montreal Plaza. For home chefs, Les Jardins Sauvages in the Jean Talon market is definitely one of the best places to buy fresh wild mushrooms in Montréal. If you’re interested in buying dried product, the Mycoboutique carries a nice variety. They also sell mushroom growing kits and have an extensive collection of mycology books.
oe: Any tips on storing and preparing wild mushrooms?
IA: Different mushrooms react differently to various preservation methods. Chanterelles for example, tend to lose their flavour and texture once they are dehydrated, whereas porcini and morels bounce back in texture and taste long after being dried out. I recently came across a Calabrian method for preserving mushrooms for use in antipasti which has become my preferred method. It basically calls for removing as much moisture from the mushrooms as possible by using salt and then submerging them under oil for a preservation period of up to a year. But needless to say, nothing beats the taste of a freshly picked mushroom!
oe: What do you do when you’re not foraging for mushrooms?
IA: I studied art history at Concordia University and have since worked within the realm of contemporary art as an arts administrator, curator and arts writer. I am continually involved in various projects that hinge off of my interest in the arts. I am also an avid collector of objects, which I feel somehow pertains to my attraction to mushrooms; I’m always interested in compiling, comparing, and categorizing things.
Please check out Iliana’s Instagram accountfor inspiration and for some amazing photography.