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New Indiana County group promotes fungi facts, fun
Friday, August 14, 2009

INDIANA -- Searching for wild mushrooms is more than a casual pastime for Bob Sleigh of Ernest. He and his wife, Ginny, have founded the new Indiana County Chapter of the Western Pennsylvania Mushroom Club to aid local residents in harvesting edible varieties.

The first member to sign up was Tom Budner Sr., a longtime mushroom enthusiast.

"I started picking mushrooms when I was just a kid," said Budner, 68, of Center Township. Budner grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania's Wilkes-Barre and learned about the fungus from an older gentleman who taught him how to find edible mushrooms.

"We looked for varieties that were safe," recalled Budner. "The Morels can't be mistaken. They are shaped like little Christmas trees and are in colors -- black, yellow and green."

His favorite type is the honey mushroom that can be found growing around tree stumps.

"They are yellowish, honey-colored," Budner said. "There is a brown variety.

"The Sheepshead is also good and grows in August and September until the killing frost. They are a good mushroom to eat."

Budner said he likes to collect and freeze mushrooms and use them for cooking.

"We fry them with eggs or put them in gravies, stews and sauces," he explained.

Budner is sharing what he knows with other club members and has passed his knowledge of mushrooms on to friends throughout his life.

The Indiana chapter, which is open to new members, has already completed walks in local parks to collect and identify mushrooms.

"A lot of what we do is education on how to find them, where to find them and what to do with them," said Bob Sleigh, a heating and cooling technician and former outdoors writer. "My wife and I enjoy hunting mushrooms and eating them. A lot of people told me they were afraid to eat wild mushrooms."

With good reason -- as some can cause food poisoning and even death.

Education vitally important

"A good rule is if you don't know what it is, don't eat it," Sleigh cautioned. "You can get food poisoning. Hundreds of people die every year from mushrooms."

Inexperienced mushroom hunters should have a guide skilled in identification, Sleigh said, because many non-edible varieties have a similar appearance to edible ones.

"That's why the club educates members on the mushrooms," he said. "Some just use them for decorations or artwork. You take a specimen from the wilds of the woods and dry it out and preserve it. Some people make dyes out of mushrooms and use that to dye cloth.

"Our chapter is interested in eating, freezing, dehydrating or canning them. Some mushrooms have medicinal value, and that is what some of us want."

The newly-formed chapter touts the motto "Fungi, Fun, Friends" and has planned various meetings, walks or forays through mid-October.

Sleigh said mushrooms vary in tastes and textures and they are used often as a spice for flavor in toppings, egg dishes, sauces or soups. There are hundreds of native mushroom species that can be found in Indiana County, he said.

"Right now, the number one mushroom people are looking for is the Chanterelle," he said. "It's used in French cooking. That's a high-quality, high-priced mushroom." It is said to have a peppery taste and fruity smell.

Also currently popular, Sleigh said, are the Meadow, Black Trumpet and Sheepshead varieties. The latter also is known as Hen of the Woods, as it resembles a hen with ruffled feathers.

A similarly named but different variety, commonly called Chicken of the Woods, "has the texture of cooked chicken," he said. "Sliced and cooked, it tastes like chicken."

"An easily found mushroom is the Bolete," Sleigh added. "Most people are familiar with the Porcini and that is another name for Bolete." The variety has a rich, meaty flavor and soft texture.

The Shiitake and Reishi mushrooms are popular for known medicinal value. They are both touted for having anti-cancer benefits and also for boosting the immune system.

"Scientists have a derivative of the Shiitake to fight cancer," Sleigh said. "Popular in the club and one I grow is Reishi. We make tea out of that. It has immune and cancer-fighting properties."

Saltsburg area resident Charlene Martz was glad she discovered the new Indiana County mushroom club chapter while searching online for tips on locating Chanterelles locally. Martz and her husband, Leslie, have been expanding their knowledge of mushrooms as an extension of their passions for organic gardening and gourmet cooking.

She said the couple discovered Morel mushrooms growing on their property after they moved 30 years ago from Wilkinsburg. They since have incorporated them into their diet.

"They're a gourmet feature," Charlene Martz said. "I've dried Morels and reconstituted them to make a nice gravy."

Martz and her husband joined the chapter's initial hike last month in Blue Spruce Park, and she was able to obtain a sample of Black Trumpet mushrooms.

"By luck, we happened upon a patch," she said. "It has a distinctive deep, rich, dark flavor."

As for the Chanterelle variety, she said she has found it to be a versatile ingredient. "It has a bright orange color that looks pretty in dishes from different international cuisines."

"Fungi, Fun, Friends"

The newly formed Indiana County Chapter of the Western Pennsylvania Mushroom Club has scheduled the following upcoming events:

Mushroom walks

Saturday -- Black Lick Valley Natural Area, Dilltown

Aug. 29 -- Yellow Creek State Park, Penn Run

Sept. 12 -- Gary Lincoff Mid-Atlantic Mushroom Foray, North Park, near Pittsburgh

Sept. 19 -- Oaks Point, State Gamelands 276, Blairsville

Oct. 3 -- Hemlock Lake Park, near Smithport

Oct. 24 -- Blue Spruce Park, near Ernest, with a potluck picnic to follow.


Sept. 9 -- Mushroom Identification for Beginners

Oct. 14 -- Final meeting for 2009: Nutritional and Medicinal Benefits Of Wild Mushrooms

Note: All meetings begin at 6 p.m. All walks begin promptly at 9 a.m. For directions or more information, contact Bob and Ginny Sleigh at 724-349-9173 or [email protected] .
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