Birch boletes have a nuttier, more aromatic flavour than porcini (Photo: Olivia Sisson)
Birch boletes have a nuttier, more aromatic flavour than porcini (Photo: Olivia Sisson)

KaiApril 24, 2021

Finding fungi: A beginner’s guide to mushroom foraging season

Birch boletes have a nuttier, more aromatic flavour than porcini (Photo: Olivia Sisson)
Birch boletes have a nuttier, more aromatic flavour than porcini (Photo: Olivia Sisson)

If you’re new to the world of fungi foraging, boletes – the easiest-to-find variety – are a great place to start. And there’s no better time to go for a hunt than right now. 

Mushroom foraging season is here and there’s never been a better time to go for a hunt. This article is intended as a jumping-off point for keen foragers and foodies of the mushroom persuasion. At the very least it will hopefully teach you something new about fungi, and at most it might help you find a few for dinner.

Whatever you do, just remember – never eat anything you’re not 100% sure about. Take this information on board, then keep going. Check out a book on the topic, buy a field guide, go to a workshop – recommendations have been included here too. 

If you’re new to the world of fungi foraging, boletes are the best place to start. As per Merriam Webster, they are “fleshy stalked pore fungi that usually grow on the ground in wooded areas”. In that definition lie three clues that make edible boletes, according to professional forager Peter Langlands, a bit easier to identify than other varieties. 

Boletes are “pore fungi”. On the underside of their caps, Langlands says, you’ll find lots of tiny holes (called pores) rather than gills. Flip your finds over and the texture will quickly help you figure out if you’ve got one or not. Porcini, birch boletes and slippery jacks are three edible boletes that can be found in New Zealand. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Left, pores on a young porcini, and right, pores on an ageing bolete (Photos: Olivia Sisson)

We think of mushrooms first and foremost as decomposers. Only some species actually fit that description and this is where the next clue comes into play – boletes “usually grow on the ground”. Fungi are heterotrophic organisms, meaning they can’t make their own food. With that, the Waldbauer Trail Guide explains, they’re divided into three categories: saprobic, parasitic and mutualistic. These designations indicate where certain types of fungi grow and how they “eat”.

Saprobic fungi live on dead wood and decompose organic matter to make energy. Parasitic varieties grow on other living organisms, including humans, and sap nutrients at their expense. Mutualistic fungi like boletes, Langlands says, also take nutrients from a host but live alongside that host and provide it with nutrients in return. 

Stumble upon a bolete and you’ll be witnessing one piece of a complicated but crucial relationship. Beneath every bolete is a fungal network called a mycelium. If you’ve ever noticed wispy white strands in a handful of garden soil, you’ve seen it up close. Mutualistic mycelium, Langlands explains, “infects” nearby tree roots to get the nutrients it needs to survive but then also provides the tree with food in return. According to Britannica, up to 90% of land plants rely on mutualistic fungi for nutrients, making them ecologically essential.

The final foraging clue in our definition is that boletes grow in “wooded areas” – each bolete species is associated with certain tree species. Birch boletes, Langlands says, are generally found with silver birch, slippery jacks grow among pines, and porcini are associated with oak, London plane and native red beech on occasion. Familiarise yourself with these trees, and you’ll have the start of a potentially fruitful foraging route. Get an understanding of microclimates and your local area, and you’ll be even closer still.

“Lots of areas are unprecedentedly dry right now, so it’s going to be all about microclimates this season,” Langlands notes. “Microclimates are a little oasis, really, small confined areas that get different temperature, moisture and humidity to the surrounding environment. Look at the edge of river banks, or springs, areas with some kind of moisture accumulation. That’s what boletes need to get going.” 

A trio of birch boletes (Photo: Olivia Sisson)

Before you head away on your first hunt, use to suss out what species grow in your area. In general, slippery jacks can be found up and down the country, birch boletes pop up in most of our urban centres, and porcini can be had in Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. “The urban heat island plays a part in the productivity of urban areas especially for mushroom foraging,” Langlands says. “Living in an urban centre and fungi foraging go well together, especially for mutualistic fungi because that’s where you find older, more established trees.”

Once you’ve found a bolete, you’ll need to confirm the species. Do this by examining the stem and cap, checking for staining once the flesh is cut, taking a spore print, and verifying with other resources. Langland’s foraging guides are excellent for this and can be purchased on TradeMe. Shirley Kerr’s Field Guide to New Zealand Fungi is similarly helpful and the Mushroom Hunting of New Zealand Facebook group is full of experts and hobbyists who are happy to help. Regional workshops can be found with a quick online search.

If you do find a few boletes, you won’t want to waste them. Porcini are the most prized of the three – Google “porcini recipes” and you won’t be short on ideas. Birch boletes, meanwhile, have a nuttier, more aromatic flavour that’s gaining in popularity. “They stand out as a different mushroom,” Langlands says. He likes them finely sliced, sauteed and served on top of a steak.

A small porcini (Photo: Olivia Sisson)

Slippery jacks are the ugly stepchild of the group and their slimy texture alone is enough to put many people off. Even so, legendary chef Fleur Sullivan of Fleurs Place in Moeraki reckons they make a lovely umami sprinkle. “The best thing I’ve found to do with them is to dry and powder them, or smoke them and add them to a risotto or soup,” she says.

If you can’t be bothered finding your own boletes, you can always buy some. Neudorf Mushrooms in Upper Moutere, near Nelson, produces several varieties. Swiss couple Hannes and Theres Krummenacher started the plantation in 2001 with tree saplings and mycelium samples they gathered themselves. When they started they sold almost nothing, Theres says. But now New Zealand, “a potato and gravy nation”, is finding out those two things are made even better by mushrooms, Theres says.

You can order a dehydrated bolete mix from Neudorf’s website. Put them straight into a soup or risotto or reconstitute and chuck them on a pizza. But don’t toss out the water, Theres instructs – it makes delicious stock.

Whichever way you get your hands on them, boletes are a special ingredient. They prop up meals with their rich, savoury flavours and support entire forests with the ecological relationships they engineer. So go on – hunt them, honour them and eat them, but always get a positive ID first.

Keep going!