If you ever wanted to spend four or five days completely immersed in the Kingdom of Fungi, there’s no place on earth like the Telluride Mushroom Festival in Colorado, held at the height of the mushroom season in mid-August each year.
This year’s Shroomfest, from August 16th through 19th, was my first. It was terrific. It’s true that the culture was a bit alien to this strait-laced square from rural Arizona, but I had a wonderful time with warm and lovely people. They are filled with knowledge and love and excitement that is totally infectious. I can’t wait to go back.
Here are some highlights of the festival that were most memorable for me:
Coming into the Palm Theater at the Telluride High School, where the festival was headquartered, I was greeted by a distinctive character I immediately recognized. It was Larry Evans of the Fungal Jungal. He had a table with a variety of mushrooms that had been found that day in the area, and was soliciting contributions of others that folks had collected along the way to Telluride. Upon going inside, I was greeted by a rush of all types of people, from blue-dreadlocked neo-hippies to a stolid fellow in overalls and buzz cut who looked like he just stepped off his tractor in Iowa. There were small children, and some very elderly folks who didn’t look at all up to the rigor of a foray at 11,000 feet elevation. And although wild mushroom hunting is generally about as Caucasian an activity as country-club shuffleboard, except among Asian immigrants on the West Coast, it was gratifying to see a good number of people of other ethnicities taking part.
Telluride is definitely a town in tune with the vibe of the Shroomfest. (Good God, am I even using the right terminology? Vibe? These kids are going to laugh at me…) It’s a great venue for this kind of event. I hadn’t seen marijuana sold openly and freely in a shop since I was a college kid in Amsterdam. But the little town was safe and quiet, with no sign of the “Reefer Madness” that legalization opponents warned of in vain before the good people of Colorado sensibly decided to concentrate their law enforcement resources on higher priorities.
Outside the lecture hall, the foyer was crammed with tables hawking mushroom books, mushroom medicines, mushroom clothing, mushroom dyes, mushroom knives, mushroom growing kits, mushroom adventure travel, raw and dried and frozen mushrooms themselves, and every conceivable kind of mushroom arts and crafts– much of it of a very high standard, some of it decidedly not… Inside the lecture hall, there were constantly panels and presentations on all manner of fungal topics. These ranged from environmental mycoremediation, to arcane topics of mycological science and taxonomy, to fabric dyeing, to wild-food foraging, to the culture of psychedelic/entheogenic mushrooms.
I was particularly interested in a lecture given by John Holliday of Aloha Medicinals. This detailed the reverse transcriptase inhibitor activity of cordycepin, a substance produced by the peculiar fungal genus Cordyceps that attacks insects and other arthropods. It interferes with RNA replication and therefore has potential utility for treatment of certain infections such as HIV and hepatitis. Lots of research yet to be done, but there is a real scientific basis to some of what we may think of as wacky new-age woo-woo. We in the allopathic medical community would do well to be alert for breakthroughs from this or any other “alternative” source. We sometimes forget how much modern pharmacology owes to fungal archetypes such as Penicillum.
Saturday afternoon was the chefs’ cook-off. There were about a dozen booths where you could taste a wide variety of wild mushroom dishes, all of them very good indeed. The grand prize winning dish was a Chanterelle Custard Tart, by Dustin Smith of the New Sheridan Chop House. It was really lip-smacking, but I was also very impressed by a hawk-wing mushroom taco dish that one of the other chefs produced. It made me totally reconsider my previous disdain for Sarcodon imbricatus and now I have happily eaten it twice since then. Choosing small, young fruiting bodies; scraping the teeth off the hymenium; boiling the sliced mushroom for eight or ten minutes in water with salt and vinegar; and finally, relatively lengthy cooking in hot oil or clarified butter seems to be the key to making a merely tolerable mushroom into a very good tasting edible.
Saturday evening, there was a lecture by wild-food writer Langdon Cook on the commercial mushroom-picking culture of the Pacific Northwest. It’s a whole different world, not just from the mundane life of the average American, but from the amateur “local yokel” mushroom pickers like you and me. Afterwards, I got him to sign my copy of his book, The Mushroom Hunters. Later that evening, we dined on fresh porcini I had bought at the Palm exhibit hall.
Sunday morning was a foray on the Telluride ski slopes with Larry Evans. We took the gondola up to the midway station by Allred’s restaurant (whose maître d’hôtel, Mario, is a porcini-crazed Italian, by the way. He forages at least 100 lbs of boletes a summer and makes sure Allred’s offers excellent mushroom dishes.)
The weather was lovely and there were lots of mushrooms out. Unfortunately, I didn’t find any good edibles, other than one small Leccinum. But I really enjoyed listening to Larry’s erudite disquisitions on the kaleidoscope of mushrooms we found, from the smallest and most uninteresting to the largest and showiest.
Out of all that we saw that day, the one I most enjoyed seeing was Pseudohydnum gelatinosum, a toothed jelly fungus that looks something like a translucent cat’s tongue. Supposedly it is edible but bland. I didn’t bother taking it home.You would probably have to look long and hard to find enough for even a small meal. But the texture and appearance are really appealing.
Sunday afternoon, one of the most cherished and memorable traditions of the mushroom festival took place: the annual Mushroom Parade along the main street. Led by a bagpiper, then the red and white polka dotted truck belonging to the Shroompa, Art Goodtimes, the parade featured some of the most outlandish costumes on some of the most unlikely characters. Reserved academics suddenly became cordyceps-sprouting zombie spiders, and beautiful young women would transform into fungus gnats or phallic stinkhorns. Sorry for not having near enough pictures to give you a full sense of the zany sense of humor on display. I regret not participating, and will have to make the effort to develop a costume for next time.
Sunday night was the Cordyceps lecture I referred to above. This was followed by an documentary film of Psilocybe rituals in Mexico, “Little Saints” by Oliver Quintanilla. I thought it was informative but rather tedious. People on hallucinogens say things that must seem amazingly insightful to them, but to those of us stranded in mundane reality, they are mostly either gibberish or banalities.
Monday morning, we went on foray at Lizard Head Pass with James Sir Jesse, a local Telluride character who knows the area well. This was a vigorous hike to about 11,000 feet of elevation. The quantities of edibles we discovered were moderately scanty. The variety of inedible species also didn’t seem as great as the lower-elevation trip yesterday. I finally found a few chanterelles and porcini, as well as a fair number of hawk-wings.
The photo above could only have been taken in Telluride, I think. As we foragers examine our finds, a guy who for some reason brought his mandolin instead of a collecting basket gives us a high-altitude serenade. It was lovely.
After lunch I saw one of the lectures I liked best. Alan Rockefeller gave a well-illustrated presentation on the Mushrooms of Mexico. This is a topic of some interest to Arizona mycophiles in particular, as there is considerable overlap with some of our Southwestern species. It’s definitely a place I would like to visit someday, perhaps as a part of a large escorted tour. Alan goes all over rural southern Mexico by himself for months at a time, and reports little to no trouble with either the authorities or the narcotraficantes, but I would not be so bold.
In the afternoon, I visited the identification tent in Elks Park downtown. Truly, I have never seen such a large and varied collection of fungi. Practically every species I have ever collected in Arizona was represented, even Boletus barrowsii. I spent a solid hour pinching, sniffing, tasting, and scrutinizing the specimens, and asking questions of the experts on hand to guide us through the collection. For the first time, I got to taste the lingering acridity of Russula emetica, and the sweetness of Clavariadelphus truncatus.
Dinner was at La Marmotte. As usual for the past twenty-odd years, an excellent meal, but unfortunately the wild mushrooms were lacking that night. I guess they ate them all at the VIP dinner the night before we got there.
Later that evening, we listened to eminent fungal photographer Taylor Lockwood talk about his project to document all of the world’s bioluminescent fungi. He showed a documentary, Spirits of the Forest, that treated us to some of the most spectacular nature photography I have ever seen. Follow the link to see the trailer. You will think you are watching outtakes from Avatar rather than anything filmed here on Earth. Spectacular!
Tuesday morning we forayed at Trout Lake with Gary Lincoff, a well-known author who wrote the Audubon Field Guide to Mushrooms of North America. I had a good haul of porcini, and got my copy of his book signed, so it was a great day.
A few of us then took a private foray farther afield along the road to Dunton, where more rain had fallen, and we suspected that things might not have been stripped so clean as in the immediate vicinity of Telluride. We were correct. A substantial number of porcini and chanterelles were retrieved. Dinner that night was fresh porcini and scallops in the condo. Yum!
Gary Lincoff then gave a highly entertaining talk in the evening, closing the festival for another year. The man is quite the raconteur, and greatly esteemed and beloved by the festival-goers. I would very much like to go on one of his famous urban forays in the parks and cemeteries of New York City.
Having visited Telluride dozens of times since the mid-70’s, I am never happy to leave this beautiful box canyon in the mountains. But driving out of town on Wednesday morning, the regrets were even stronger. What a place, and what an event! I am sure I will be back many more times.