It's a clear, crisp morning in Ogunquit, Maine — a summertime tourist haven where the storefronts have names like H&M Crumpets' and Harbor Candy Shop — and Dave Schneller, executive chef of Jamaica Plain's Canary Square, is leading a three-car caravan down a winding, tree-lined road. The foliage surrounding us, while still awe-inducing, is peaking, its brilliant reds and oranges giving way to paper-bag brown. When we step out of the car, it feels like the woods are holding their breath before closing up shop for winter.
We're here to try our luck at foraging for mushrooms. Schneller, a lover of the locally sourced and seasonal, has been at it since 2004. Today we're looking for hedgehogs, winter chanterelles, and black trumpets. Schneller shows us pictures of the fungi on his phone. I'm familiar with the golden chanterelles and their funnel-shaped caps, but have never heard of the hedgehog, which has tiny teeth instead of gills.
"Is there a foraging prayer or something we should say before we go in?" asks Mike Moxley, co-owner and craft-beer guru of Canary Square. There isn't, Schneller assures us, but maybe there should be: last time he spent a morning in these woods, just a few months back, he walked out with one measly handful.We head in, toting plastic prep tubs and training our eyes on the sun-dappled forest floor. The ground is coated with a thick, damp blanket of pine needles and leaves, and the whole thing gives underfoot like a springy mattress. Schneller is in a plaid shirt and jeans, his sleeves rolled up to his forearms, looking like a true Mainer next to the rest of us wimps bundled in layers. My fingertips are cold from the autumn chill, but I ignore it.
It only takes five minutes before one of us spots the first small clump of chanterelles; we gather around, memorizing their features. Once we're crouched down, the mushrooms seem to multiply before our eyes. They're everywhere, all different sizes, poking up under leaves and damp dirt. Schneller tells us they tend to grow close together, so watching your feet once you find a few is important.
Flushed with the small victory, we spread out, heads bowed and stepping cautiously, occasionally kneeling to brush away leaves or lift a mushroom cap, checking its gills. Every so often, someone calls out, "Is this something?" and sticks crunch as Schneller makes his way over. We crack jokes about stumbling on a chanterelle's poisonous evil twin by accident, our musings laced with a lingering concern over the possibility. Schneller seems unfazed.
"The whole fear of mushroom picking is a very puritanical thing to me," he says. "Evil toadstools and all that. You'd have to eat a ton of poison mushrooms, and you'd have to eat them raw, to drop dead right away. We know what we're looking for, and once you do, stick to that."
Picking the delicate fungi is strangely thrilling, even though I've uprooted vegetables plenty of times before. This is different; maybe it's because we're alone in the forest with no one telling us how many we can pick, or maybe it's the wild pleasure of recognizing a prized edible right under our feet.