Rich soils nurture a veritable foraging buffet of local nettles, watercress, rose hips and more. But it’s the landscape of edible mushrooms that have Aspen chefs combing forests, meadows and riversides. Porcini and chanterelle reign supreme, while hedgehog, milk cap, king bolete and wood ears (the jellylike black strips found in hot and sour soup) make seasonal appearances. “Culinarily speaking, I think our chanterelles here in Colorado are some of the best in the world. It’s piney with hints of apricot. It’s amazing,” says Bosq chef Barclay Dodge.
July through September is prime mushroom-hunting season in Pitkin County. After first frost, it’s over. Properly plucking these locavore lovelies requires a little know-how, Dodge says. The Aspen-raised chef recommends a Colorado mushroom guidebook and an eye for that “magical zone”—a trifecta of moisture, sun and ground conditions where mushrooms thrive.
“It’s preferable to go right after it rains and when the temps warm up a little,” says chef Nate King of Aspen bistro Cache Cache. King began hunting morels as a kid in Iowa and says the key to foraging around Aspen is to seek out forests with old downed trees and to work one’s way up from lower elevations in July to higher elevations later in the summer. He nods to the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms as a go-to resource.
Novices can take any foraged finds to the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies. The Roaring Fork Valley nonprofit can help identify edible mushrooms. Neither chef was willing to share exact coordinates but said they’ve had success around Basalt, Sunlight Mountain, Lenado Trail and Independence Pass. (And both point out they hunt mushrooms strictly for personal use, as it’s illegal to serve them in their restaurants.) King boletes cling to the edges of wide-open meadows at higher elevations, and chanterelles like sun glades and damp bases of steep slopes where there’s heavy needle coverage. Dodge has found porcini in dark dank areas, streamside and baking in the sun.
Hauling the unearthed treasures home, King keeps dishes simple to showcase the mushrooms’ natural essence. Baby porcinis sliced paper-thin sing on top of salads and in risottos, while the meatier king bolete fares well in a fettuccine with shallots and a light butter sauce. Dodge recalls a favorite brothy, buttery ragout of chanterelle mushrooms and bacon with a garlic chip-crowned soft-poached egg nestled in the middle—a seasonal bounty well worth the hunt.
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