Category : Wildcrafting
(First published Sept. 2012)
Lobster mushrooms and I first became acquainted when I had some for lunch at a friend’s home. The son of a college friend had brought some lobster mushrooms he had foraged earlier that morning near Bellingham. I had never heard of them, but was enchanted with their bright, orange-red color–the color of a lobster shell. He prepared them by simply cutting them into pieces and sauteing them in butter. The taste and scent intrigued me further–a distinctive flavor with shellfish overtones. In short, they were a surprising revelation, and I’ve remembered them fondly since then.
For that reason, I was excited when I saw lobster mushrooms being offered recently at the Cascadia Mushrooms stand in the Bellingham Farmers Market. We were there mostly to pick up 20 pounds of fresh Roma tomatoes from Terra Verde for canning, but we stretched our budget a little to tuck some of the lobster ‘shrooms into our bag.
Lobster mushrooms are an oddity, even in the odd and fascinating world of mushrooms. For one thing, they are actually two different organisms growing together–a mushroom and a mold.
When I first learned that, I admit I was a little put off, thinking of the common molds I’ve seen–and carefully not eaten–on bread, old vegetables, etc. I researched a little deeper and discovered there are actually several kinds of mold. Some are bacteria, such as those found on bread, but the mold of the lobster mushroom is a type of fungi, just like mushrooms themselves.
Lobster mushrooms (Hypomyces lactifluorum) are a parasitic mold covering its host mushroom, which is usually a Russula or Lactarius variety. The mold forms a thin, bright orange layer over the white mushroom underneath. They are usually found in pine or hemlock woods, where their hosts are common.
Since the flavor of lobster mushrooms is formed by an interaction of the mold and its host, I suspect the name has more to do with the color than the taste. For example, when the host is Lactarius piperatus, the lobster mushroom will typically have a peppery flavor rather than the milder shellfish taste I experienced.
There are a few reports of the mold parasitising a poisonous mushroom, and so presumably becoming poisonous itself. Most scholarly sources, though, attribute this to the difficulty of identifying the host mushroom, and believe the mold is very selective for the Russula or Lactarius host species. There are no known poisonous varieties in those two genera. Also, no fatalities have ever been reported from eating lobster mushrooms. As a result, lobster mushrooms are considered safe to eat. A few people have reported allergies to the mold, however. As with all mushrooms, if you haven’t eaten them before, try a small quantity first to check for sensitivity.
Lobster mushrooms have a meaty texture, even more than portobellas. For that reason they are often used by vegetarians in recipes instead of meat. People also use lobster mushrooms to dye fibers for knitting or weaving.
If you’re interested in learning more about mushrooms and how to identify, collect and eat them safely, I’d recommend contacting the Northwest Mushroomers Association (NMA). Call Jack Waytz at (360) 303-4079 or Margaret Dilly at (360) 675-8756, or see their website at: www.northwestmushroomers.org
NMA hold their annual Wild Mushroom Show at the multi-purpose room in Bloedel Donovan Park in October every year. (Check their website for this year’s dates.) If you’re interested in learning about mushrooms and you’ve never attended this event before, it’s an enormous extravaganza of hundreds of varieties of mushroom from our area. Most are fresh picked within a day or two of the show so you can see what they look like in the wild. It’s a stunning amount of work and a tribute to the passion people feel for these fascinating fungi. Lots of experts are always on hand to answer questions and share information, and you can even bring mushrooms from your own backyard to be identified, if you like. (They probably won’t tell you where to find their favorite patch of morels, though they do have spring and fall forays for their members.) For more information about the show, call (360) 303-4079.
If you get your hands on some fresh lobster mushrooms, try my recipe for Creamy Lobster Mushroom Sauce.