No mushroom presents more of an enigma than the fly agaric, Amanita muscaria. it's the first recognizable mushroom on the earth. It is widely referred to as the hallucinatory 'shroom liable for Alice's trip into Wonderland and possibly our favorite images of a red-suited Santa Claus and his flying reindeer.
I am not into hallucinations. Or stomach cramping, for that matter. So for years, I let this beautiful mushroom expire my mushroom hunts until last weekend. We were ostensibly looking for porcini, Boletus edulis. As any king bolete hunter knows, the Amanita muscaria is a red flag indicating that a portion could be nestled nearby: They flush round the same time, in round the same place. And where we were on California's Central Coast, there have been thousands of muscaria, seawater within the woods.
As we walked, picking porcini and other wonderful boletes, I started having a nagging conversation: you recognize you'll eat those amanitas, right? Yes, but don't they have all kinds of crazy processing first? Probably. But you'll never get a far better chance to experiment than with this flush right here, right now. OK, OK. I grabbed a separate bag and commenced picking.
I filled a sack in no time. I could have filled the rear of my pickup with muscaria. But I also had an enormous haul of porcini, the prize of the day. So I addressed them first. My dehydrator ran morning and night for days. I made porcini powder, dried quarts of porcini, made porcini risotto, and even gave some fresh ones. All the while, my sack of amanitas lay neglected within the garage.
I came up for air a couple of days ago and decided to try to do some research. I even have tons of mushroom books. Most say that fly agaric is toxic and hallucinatory. a couple of calling it deadly poisonous, which seems to be a stretch considering fewer than a couple of confirmed deaths by this mushroom, and everyone has extenuating circumstances. (A side note: Amanita muscaria appears to be attractive to dogs and cats and may kill them if they eat it, so keep it far away from your pets!)
There is a whole modern subculture dedicated to tripping on this mushroom, and its use in visions dates back thousands of years — especially among those that sleep in the boreal forests of the North.
My colleague Greg Marley, whose excellent book Chanterelle Dreams, Amanita Nightmares: The Love, Lore, and Mystique of Mushrooms goes into this at length, says that Amanita muscaria has been a logo of happiness in Central Europe, Baltic and Scandinavia for hundreds of years, calling it "a red light shining brightly within the winter darkness." and therefore the people of the North, as any mushroom hunter knows, are mad about mushrooms.
There are a standard exchange between us Anglo' shroomers once we see various, "lesser" species of 'shroom: Is it edible? Well, the Russians eat it… fly agaric falls into this category.
Historically, the Siberians boiled Amanita muscaria then drank the liquor to urge roaring drunk. They then preserved the mushrooms for eating later. Because it happens, the Siberians' livestock also loves this 'shroom. And I'm not talking about cattle; I'm talking about reindeer.
Yep. Caribou will hunt down fly agaric only for the high — or a minimum of it's that thanks to us humans. So it's not too far a stretch to raise a picture of a jolly, roaringly drunk, fat, hairy dude all dressed up for the North Pole — during a red suit with white trim — chillin' with flying reindeer.
But as I said, i'm not into that kind of thing. So I looked deeper. It seems that the first toxins, er, "active ingredients," in fly agaric are ibotenic acid and muscimol. Unlike the amatoxins within the deadly amanitas — the death cup and therefore, the destroying angel — ibotenic acid and muscimol are water-soluble.
More research turned up William Rubel, who knows his stuff when it involves mushrooms. Rubel wrote a piece of writing about the way to detoxify Amanita muscaria that proved enlightening.
What's more, he and David Arora, who is even more renowned within the mycological world, teamed abreast of an extended piece (which is linked to at rock bottom of Rubel's article) about cultural attitudes toward fly agaric that gives all the detail you'll need on why this mushroom has such a different place in our minds: Food. Poison. Hallucinogen.
As a food, Amanita muscaria does need special handling. Most of the people eat only the caps or the very young buttons. They need to be boiled during a large volume of water for a period of your time, and then you would like to discard that water. Then, most cultures will either fry them like healthy mushrooms, or pickle them, or preserve them in oil; I happen to understand that a particular set of Italians do that. The Japanese around Nagano eat fly agaric as pickles, like the Latvians, Finns, and Russians.
Langdon Cook wrote about eating Amanita muscaria with none aside from David Arora, and he pronounced them delicious. Lang also pointed me to a cautionary article written by two mycologists who did not detoxify their muscaria enough. The moral of that article is to use much water and boil the hell out of the shrooms.
By the time I'd screwed up enough courage to fiddle with this stuff, about half had gone. But I still had about 10 good caps to experiment with them. What follows is what I did to detoxify the mushrooms. If you select to fiddle with fly agaric, do so at your own risk.
I first removed all the caps and cleaned them with a brush and, therefore, the knife's side. Then I cut the caps into 1/4 inch slices.
I filled my 12-quart stockpot up to the highest, leaving about 3 inches of room to spare. I added enough salt to form the water taste salty and 1 cup of vinegar. Several sources say that adding salt and vinegar helps extract the toxins.
I brought this to a boil and added the mushroom caps, then let it roll for quarter-hour.
I then drained the mushrooms, filled the stockpot half full with water, and brought it to a boil. In went the mushrooms for an additional 5 minutes. Why? If that they had gotten too vinegary or salty, this can help—also, better safe than sorry.
The key to boiling seems to be time and water volume. You would like enough water to leach out all the mushroom toxins, so it follows that the more muscaria you boil, the more water you'll need. As for time, it seems quarter-hour may be a pretty good interval, consistent with my sources.
When the slices were through , most of the color was gone from the previously pretty red caps. Oh well. They were still a vague ivory-yellow, but the mushrooms themselves were pale and slippery. Not appetizing. Lang and Arora ate them fried in butter, so I did an equivalent.
I experimented with about 1 cap's worth of slices. it's always knowing start small with any new mushroom, and particularly one that has potentially toxic effects. I put the slices into a non-stick pan and allow them to dry saute for a couple of minutes. They didn't exude an excessive amount of water, oddly, so I added some butter and a touch salt. I used to be happy to ascertain the slices fry up crispy. Now we're talking!
I put them on a touch plate, and tentatively took a bite. I'd be lying if I told you I used to be not a minimum of a touch nervous. I tasted butter and salt initially, always lovely. On the other hand, I got a bit crisp, the squishy crunchiness of the mushroom, then that nutty flavor everyone who's eaten muscaria talks about. Reflexively, I reached for an additional slice, then another and another.
I had to force myself to prevent at 1 cap's worth. There were that good. Now it had been time to attend.
The mycologists who'd boiled their muscaria in insufficient water for too short started tripping at 20 minutes. So I sat right down to watch Boise State beat the crap out of Arizona State and waited. I used to be wondering if Boise's crazy blue uniforms would spark some weird hallucinations. But no. I checked out my watch: 45 minutes and zip. The sport got boring. Holly and that I then watched a show a few bunches of Vikings getting beheaded in England 1000 years ago, which, on reflection, was probably not ideal if I were close to continue a mushroom trip. But no. I checked out my watch again: Two hours had passed and zip.
If a visitor were coming, it might have hit by then. What's more, I had neither stomach cramps nor the other ill effects whatsoever. Success!
Now you'll be asking yourself why I might bother messing around with fly agaric once I had just hauled in pounds of boletes? First, Amanita muscaria is one of the simplest mushrooms within the world to spot. Albeit it's some color variation, just like the yellow-orange one below, if you stick with the red and orange color phases, fly agaric is unmistakable.
Now white and light-yellow phase muscaria do exist, but I don't recommend messing with those. White amanitas are nearly always deadly — the destroying angel chief among them — and mistaking a destroying angel for a white muscaria is the last mistake you ever make.
And with the yellow ones, you'll mistake muscaria for the more-toxic Panther Amanita, Amanita Pantherina, which doesn't have a history of culinary use.
A second reason to think about eating Amanita muscaria is because it's an outsized mushroom that, as I saw on the Central Coast, can flush in huge numbers. I could easily have collected four grocery bags on my last trip, which might have made many good eating down the road.
And good eating is that the real reason I will be able to prefer to eat fly agaric once or twice a season. It had been a delicious mushroom fried in butter, and that I suspect it'll make an excellent better-preserved mushroom if the Italians or Russians' experience is any indication. At the very least, it'll be a conversation starter, eh?