GALLATIN NATIONAL FOREST — There are giants in these hills — big, stalky, delicious giants.
King bolete mushrooms, among the largest and most prized of edible Montana mushrooms, are popping in the mountains surrounding town.
Montana State University mycologist Cathy Cripps said it's unusual to see king boletes this late in the season.
“Typically king bolete season starts the second week of August and goes through the first week in September,” Cripps said Monday. “We had a very dry fire season. Maybe the mushrooms were set back a bit and now it is still warm and the rain is falling, so perhaps we are seeing a re-emergence of some of the mushroom.”
King boletes (Boletus edulis) are regarded for their nutty flavor and pleasant aroma. They are a meaty mushroom that cooks and dehydrates well, great for dinner the night of the hunt or preserved for a taste of the season in the middle of winter.
In Europe, king boletes are famously popular with cooks. Known commercially as porcini mushrooms in Italy, ceps in France and steinpilz in Germany, king boletes have a long and revered place in European cuisine.
“When I visited northern Italy, I found a store that was only selling porcini,” Cripps said. “They had dried, fresh and pickled porcini. It was amazing. I saw the jars in the storefront window and went in and the whole store was Boletus edulis.”
Cripps said her first experience with king boletes came when she was living in a small Colorado mining town.
“It was one of the first edible mushrooms I was able to identify,” Cripps said. “The miners from Europe new Boletus edulis. They taught me to identify it.”
Cripps said king boletes can be identified in the Montana forest first and foremost by their size. The caps can often be as large as a dinner plate with a thick, meaty stem, growing wider toward its base. The caps have the appearance of a big hamburger bun with a red or brown hue.
“If you look closely you can see a very fine net veining towards the top of the stem,” Cripps said. “When you cut a king bolete in half it has a nice white flesh that does not turn color.”
The underside of the king bolete cap has a spongy layer that covers spore-bearing tubes. The tubes are white when young and turn golden yellow with age.
The tubes contain a lot of moisture and can be slimy when reconstituted, but they also contain a great deal of flavor. A favorite use for king bolete tubes is to dry them and grind them into a powder for use in gravies and pasta sauces.
As with other wild mushrooms, king boletes should be well-cooked before consumption.
“All boletes have a high water content which can cause them to cook up watery or slimy,” David Aurora wrote in his mushroom guidebook “All That the Rain Promises and More … A Hip Pocket Guide to Western Mushrooms.” “Dry sautéing them will drive off the excess moisture while concentrating their flavor.”
Cripps said there is one particular look-a-like that mushroom hunters should be aware of when foraging king boletes. The Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center based in Denver has reported several recent cases of poisoning from aspen boletes (Leccinum insigne). Aspen boletes are considered edible, but some people may experience adverse effects from consumption.
The aspen bolete is a large mushroom similar to the king bolete, but it has a rough black stem and bright orange cap. It turns blue, gray or pink when cut, unlike the king bolete, which does not change color. When foraging, be aware of the forest you are in. King boletes prefer conifer forest, while aspen boletes are more typically found in aspen groves.
Cripps said king boletes are among her favorite edible mushrooms to hunt and to eat.
“They are exciting to find because they are quite large,” Cripps said, “and they have a delicious nutty flavor, especially when you find them young.”
Ben Pierce can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 582-2625.