Whenever the Smith Mountain Lake area gets hit with a heavy rainstorm, Hardy resident Erich Faber begins counting the days. In a little more than a week, there will be a bounty of fresh mushrooms ready for him to pick.
Faber has many years of experience when it comes to the best times to find mushrooms. He learned the skill from his mother who was born in Germany where collecting mushrooms is far less taboo than it is in America.
Growing up, they would often go hiking in search of mushrooms to cook. From a young age, Faber not only learned the many unique flavors of wild mushrooms, but also knew which ones were poisonous.
Faber admits that eating mushrooms found locally can be dangerous without knowing what to look for. When he left for college, Faber said he had trouble distinguishing which mushrooms were safe and which were poisonous without his mother’s help. He eventually began doing his own research and now has several books he references any time he is unsure.
Faber still doesn’t go beyond his comfort zone. He said a mushroom found locally called Caesar’s mushroom is considered a delicacy. He refuses to pick them because they closely resemble the destroying angel mushroom that is extremely deadly and considered one of the world’s most toxic mushrooms.
“There are old mushroom hunters and there are bold mushroom hunters, but there are no old, bold mushroom hunters,” Faber joked.
Faber has certain mushrooms he has picked for years. He has even learned the best places around the lake to find them. Some of his spots are a well-guarded secret since some of the mushrooms can sell for as much as $50 a pound in specialty stores.
In the spring, morel mushrooms can often be found around the roots and base of dead or dying apple trees. Faber said they have a distinct, nutty flavor that can be added to a variety of dishes. He often cooks them with recently caught fish.
The mushrooms are considered one of the most desired wild mushrooms in the world. Much of the morel mushrooms’ popularity, like other wild mushrooms, comes from the fact that they cannot be farmed.
In the fall, Faber searches for a mushroom called chicken of the woods. He said the mushrooms do indeed taste like chicken and can be used as a chicken substitute in dishes.
Oyster mushrooms can be found in the winter. Faber admitted they don’t have much of a taste. “They are probably my least favorite,” he said.
This time of year Faber is often in search of golden chanterelles. They taste similar to apricots with a hint of pepper and make a great addition to omelettes, he said. They are often found near the base of tulip trees.
Faber said any mushrooms he picks that are not cooked right away are sauteed in butter and placed in the freezer to use in a future dish. His family typically eats dishes with wild mushrooms several times a week.
Faber said his wife was apprehensive about eating wild mushrooms when they first met, but ended up giving them a try. He said several of his friends have come to like them as well.
A chanterelle mushroom dip is a specialty Faber fixes often for guests. He said people are reluctant to try it the first time he makes it for them. The initial fears of eating wild mushrooms eventually go away when they discover the unique flavors.
Faber said he understands there is still a hesitation in eating wild mushrooms, but he takes pride in eventually converting friends and family into liking the fungi.