As Eric Swanson thumbed through piles of wild mushroom identification books — just a handful of the rows of books on the topic that lined the shelves of his Bristol living room — he described what the common types looked, smelled and tasted like as though each one was a close acquaintance.
The porcini, he said, is common in many European and Asian cuisines, and can often be found dried in supermarkets. But its most distinctive quality is its appearance.
“It looks like a fat guy with a hamburger on his head,” said Swanson.
He held out a bag of dry orange mushrooms etched with a brainlike pattern.
“The chanterelles taste fruity, like apricots,” he said. “There’s gadzillions of them in the woods out there.”
The black trumpets — an earthier scent, with a sharp tang — are also ubiquitous. On one mushroom hunting venture, Swanson filled the back of his small pickup truck with the mushrooms in under six hours. These are considered choice mushrooms, especially good stirred into a cream or cheese sauce.
These, and other varieties, are the reasons that Swanson spends the warmer months of the year wildcrafting — that is, searching the woods for wild edibles. Sometimes he spends days at a time in the woods, filling his backpack with fresh, wild specimens. And when he’s not gathering mushrooms, he runs Vermush, a company he started eight years ago in his backyard.
Vermush is a company dedicated to making mushrooms accessible to the general public, both through educational workshops and growing kits.
The company sprang from a tour that Swanson took out west, performing as the keyboardist with his band. On the west coast, he discovered, mushrooms were hugely popular. There, whole families would go mushroom hunting, and there was a strict permit process that required wildcrafters to specify the type and quantity of the plants they were searching for.
“On the west coast, people get in fights over mushrooms. There can be violence,” he said.
Back in Vermont, Swanson realized that the mushroom business was radically different on this side of the country. There were fewer people who knew about mushrooms, and supermarkets and co-ops tended to be very cautious about accepting mushrooms from individual wildcrafters, due to a lack of regulation and the risk of poisonous mushrooms.
“There are many different people who bring mushrooms to a restaurant. If one of them picks one that’s dangerous, how do we know who’s liable?” said Swanson.
But wild mushrooms still hold an unmistakable allure, both from the gourmande’s perspective and from the wildcrafter’s.
So Swanson taught himself to identify mushrooms, but after several years of foraging on his own he was still struggling with the caution surrounding wildcrafted mushrooms, the worry that people didn’t know enough about the more dangerous mushrooms, and he was also trying to find a way to extend himself.
“I end up breaking even with wildcrafting,” he said. “Between driving everywhere to get them, and driving everywhere to sell them, you don’t make much.”
Swanson decided to try a more creative — and multipurpose — strategy. Starting a mushroom business would both give him the legitimacy he needed as a mushroom expert and allow him to educate others in identifying and cultivating their own mushrooms.
Eight years later, Vermush’s specialty is the mushroom log, a small log plugged with spores and aged until the fungus has begun to eat the log through, which usually takes about six months. Once Swanson ships a log out, he instructs customers to fully soak it at least once a week. After a few thorough soakings, the mushrooms should begin to sprout. And since the mushroom spores are wild and not always predictable, Swanson has a lifetime guarantee on all the logs — customers are free to return a non-sprouting log, and he will give them another.
Swanson also has a permit from the National Forestry Service allowing him to collect wood for mushroom kits on their land. He collects everywhere between Rutland and Morrisville.
“Basically, the whole place is my farm,” he said.
And he tries to preserve it, at least a little. He washes the mushrooms after he picks them, and often he will save the water — which has pieces and spores from the mushrooms — in order to pack it back up into the mountains. At each place where he found a significant mushroom harvest, he scatters the water that he used to wash them. That way. the mushrooms will grow back again, sometimes in even greater quantities than when he found them.
Back in Swanson’s living room, he moved through more of the 88,000 species of mushrooms, pointing out some of the poisonous varieties, from the death cap to the false chanterelle to the deadly galerina.
“We call them LBMs. Little brown mushrooms,” he said.
It’s these mushrooms that wildcrafters learn to identify first, and can elicit reactions anywhere between mild indigestion and death.
So for those who are more nervous about identifying edible and non-edible mushrooms, Swanson sees his mushroom kits as a good option. He sells between 100 and 200 per year, mostly after his workshops and demonstrations or through gardening shops, all this without any advertising.
Over the years, Swanson has gone from playing the keyboard to mushroom hunting, but to him, it’s not as unlikely a jump as it might seem.
“Mushroom (growers) and musicians have lots in common,” he said with a smile. “We’re like magicians. We can turn nothing into something.”
But mostly, the mushroom business lets him do what he wants to do.
“It’s fun. I like being outside in nature.”
You can find Vermush online at www.vermush.com.
Andrea does reporting and online media for the Addison Independent. You can find her on Twitter here or see other Table Talk entries here. Feel free to weigh in on this post or suggest future topics, either in the comments section below or at andreas [at] addisonindependent.com.