What I take in the woods, physically and mentally.
I always get a lot of people ask me where I learned what I know and how I got started. I partly answered that question in my very first blog post, but I'll touch on it again. My first time foraging, one of my culinary instructors in Vermont took me. After graduating I hooked up with a trapper who took me under his wing and gave me a solid foundation to what I know today. This by no means was the end of my outdoor education though. I collected several guides for both mushrooms and wild plants, joined a mycrological association, taken a few courses and have tucked away over a decade of experience in the woods. The reason I'm telling you this actually has very little to do with the actual plants and mushrooms I look for, but more with the items I use to collect them. Like any hobby you can spend as much or as little as you want, the only difference is with this hobby the tools (books are a different story) will guarantee you no more success if you buy the most expensive brand or the cheapest. It's mother nature who ultimately decide if you're going to walk out of the woods with 5 Chanterelles or 5 Lbs of Chanterelles.
Of course like most hobbies there are things you can do to up your chance of success and that's what I'm going to focus on today. Lets start with books. There are literally thousands of foraging and identification books out there. Over the years my library has swelled to the point of overflowing with foraging, identification and wild edible cookbooks. But there is one particular book that I wish I had found when I first started going into the woods. A Beginner's Guide to Recognizing Trees of the Northeast is by far one of the greatest weapons I have in my foraging arsenal. This book is in my foraging bag at all times and I love the simplicity of it. I realize that some of you may not be in the northeast, but trees like oaks and maples are everywhere and learning the subtle differences can be key to finding better hunting grounds. Trees play such and important role in most mushrooms life cycles. If you know your trees, mushroom hunting will become exponentially easier and more rewarding for you. Once you know your trees, you're going to need a good guide. Mushrooming without Fear is the book I give to my friends that want to get into foraging or have a lot of questions I've grown tired of answering. It's a great beginners book, and is easy to comprehend. For those with a little more experience I recommend Mushrooms of the Southeast. It has a pretty comprehensive database of most mushrooms you'll find in the mid Atlantic. Again if you're not from the mid Atlantic type in "Mushrooms of the....." into Amazon and there's probably a similar guide for your specific region. For those of you who are experts, you're probably not reading this...but if you are and STILL want a recommendation mine is National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms.
Now for those of you who are looking for plant guides there are a few different ones I recommend. Disclaimer though, I don't know too many medicinal plants or a lot of medicinal uses for plants. I do have some knowledge I've picked up over the years, but as you know I'm a chef and my primary purpose for plant foraging is to eat it! Which is a good segway into my first recommendation. Incredible Wild Edibles is another book I carry in my foraging bag. I really like the simplicity yet clearness of the book. It really helped grow my knowledge beyond just looking for mushrooms. Another one I carry in my bag is Southeast Foraging: 120 Wild and Flavorful Edibles from Angelica to Wild Plums. This is another region specific book, but there is a series of them you can find on amazon. Acorns & Cattails: A Modern Foraging Cookbook of Forest, Farm & Field is one of my favorite foraging cookbooks. Its has neat ideas and the pictures are nice.
But what about the physical tools? How do I dress? What bug spray should I use? Should I use basket or something else? These are the questions I rarely get asked about. I guess in some cases they are pretty self explanatory, but here's what has become my ritual wardrobe and carry as I tromp off into the woods.
First, dress code. Long pants, waterproof shoes/boots that come above the ankle, light weight shirt (I like mine with a collar). Shorts are tempting in hot weather, but anything you can do to prevent ticks from crawling to your nether regions I suggest you do. I typically bring a Opinel or Japanese pruning knife into the woods. I personally don't like mushroom specific knives, I find them awkward to use and expensive. A straight blade cuts Hen and chicken of the woods so much easier and they are much, much easier to sharpen. I've lost countless knives in the woods, so don't buy a 500$ knife for foraging unless you want heartache.
Bug Spray and baskets!! I want 100% Deet, no questions asked. Limes disease is ever evolving and now there's a strand that makes you unable to digest meat! I hate tickets so in this one rare case, yep I want chemicals. For those of you that want a little something more natural Cedar oil is an option. It helps, but don't expect it to work 100% of the time, plus you will smell like a hamster cage. And last but not least the debated foraging bag! I personally like whats called and "Ammo dump pouch". It's a lot more discrete than a basket, I mean if you're in the woods with a basket full of morels and someone see you and them "goodbye" to that spot. I know some of you are saying "what about the spore distribution?!" Well some of the best and most respected foragers in the field have stated that they are cute, but not necessary. People have been picking mushrooms long before they knew about microscopic spores, and I'm sure they weren't going into neat little mushroom baskets and yet the Chanterelle still lives. But you know what ancient people definitely weren't using, plastic. Never put mushrooms in a plastic bag. This encourages a rapid rate of decomposition and bacteria growth. In a pinch, I get it. But make sure your transfer to a proper container asap!
Hope this has been helpful and that it answers some questions you might have. Happy hunting!