How to Pick Mushrooms That Won't Kill You or Leave You Stoned

Nature is generous, but it's also bestowed some mushrooms with toxic properties to keep predators away. If you eat the wrong mushroom, you die.

by Pablo Mata Olay; translated by Julie Schwietert Collazo
26 October 2017, 11:00am

This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES Mexico in June 2016.

Everyone's favorite neighbour Ned Flanders has some advice on distinguishing cider apples from juice apples: "If it's clear and yella', you've got juice there, fella. If it's tangy and brown, you're in cider town." When it comes to mushrooms, things aren't as clear-cut.

During Mexico's rainy season, the ground harbours a delicious secret: Fresh mushrooms, hidden in the few forests left in Mexico City, between lush green plants and the aromatic oyamel, a local evergreen free.


Milpa Alta, in Mexico City. Photo by the author

To the surprise of many locals, you can still find oyamel forests in Mexico's capital city, where the trees have been growing for hundreds of years. You can also find mountain lions, coyotes, and mushrooms that pop up as soon as rain begins.

So we donned our boots, grabbed our raincoats, and headed to the mountain of Milpa Alta (the boundary between Mexico City and the state of Mexico), where we spent a few hours in search of these summer delights.


In the Santa Ana Tlacotenco forest, it's a challenging uphill walk to search for wild mushrooms. Photo by the author.

We were accompanied by chef Jorge Córcega, who, for the past five years, has lived in San Pedro Atocpan, one of the 13 towns in this borough that's known for its annual mole festival. Córcega has been devoted to exploring the land around Milpa Alta. And he's built his kitchen around the area's products, calling them "authentic Mexico City." As part of his work, Córcega has been developing the Milpa Route (La Ruta de la Milpa), a tour of towns in the area that show another side of this city, where cactus paddles, domestic corn, and potatoes are still grown; where livestock are tended and deer are hunted; where traditional festivals are still celebrated; and where wild delights grow, including herbs and wild mushrooms.


Non-edible wild mushrooms. Photo by Eunice Lozada.

Córcega promised us that he would cook any mushrooms we found and gathered in our basket. We were hungry, so we thought our best move would be to fill our basket quickly and call it a day.


Photo by the author.

But it's not that easy. The humid forest is full of mushrooms, but not all of them are edible. Nature is generous, but it's also bestowed some mushrooms with toxic properties to keep predators away. If you eat the wrong mushroom, you die.

As luck would have it, though, we had an expert in tow. Córcega has many years of experience in distinguishing edible mushrooms from the poisonous ones. He taught us everything we needed to know to eat mushrooms and live to talk about it.

Here are the basic rules (and you should be very careful eating anything you pick from the forest floor):


Photo by the author.

The more beautiful the mushroom, the more venomous it is

Observe, for example, this beautiful specimen, plump and speckled. It's almost like Papa Smurf's summer home. But it's poisonous—best not to even touch it.


Photo by Margot Castañeda.

We can also take a look at this orange mushroom. You might think, based on its color, that it'd have a refreshing citrus flavor. But in actuality, its effect would mimic that of the atomic bomb: Death and destruction.


Photo by the author.

If the mushroom is easy to spot, it's poisonous

Along our walk, among the carpet of needles that sit beneath the oyamel trees, thin, curious fungi the color of button mushrooms sprout up everywhere. If they could speak, they'd sound like the Minions mixed with Mickey Mouse. But be careful: They're poisonous.


Poisonous fungi. Photo by Eunice Lozada

But there are also plenty of delicious edible mushrooms that you should absolutely be fucking with. To identify them, here are a few golden rules:

If they don't have little worms, don't touch them

Nature is wise and knows how to identify the most nutritious foods immediately, and worms, being little heralds of deliciousness, can signal to us which mushrooms are at their best.


Inedible mushrooms. Photo by the author

You have to search the debris of the forest floor

Mushrooms love shade and humidity, and there's no better place for either than the base of a plant that holds raindrops or dew for hours. There, between the ground and the forest floor litter, the mushroom will grow happily, beautiful and nutritious, until we come along and cut it.


Escobetilla mushrooms (yes, they're edible). Photo by Eunice Lozada.

Now, some advice for cutting them: Dig around their base a bit and you'll see, much like an iceberg, that the mushroom hides a large part of itself in the nutritious dirt. This advice especially applies to escobetilla mushrooms.


Swine horn fungi. Photo by Eunice Lozada.

At long last, after several hours of searching, we had a basket full of wild mushrooms that were fresh, delicious, and—most importantly—non-poisonous.


Photo by the author.

A last bit of advice from Córcega: you don't have to wash naturally-occurring mushrooms that hard; just use a knife to scrape off all the dirt you can.


Pig's ear mushrooms about to be cleaned.


Mushrooms are cleaned with knives or little spoons.

Chef Córcega prepared the mushrooms with onion, garlic, and salt, and served them with some cheese and a salsa verde. "Simple," he said, adding: "The trick is to let them be what they are, and not hide the flavor."


Escobetilla mushrooms about to be cooked.

Thanks to Córcega and his Milpa Route initiative, it's easier to try ingredients like these mushrooms with the assurance that we won't poison ourselves, and, above all, that we don't even have to leave Mexico City. We'll be back before the rainy season ends, in order to have rations for the whole year.


Escobetilla and pig's ear mushrooms sautéed with garlic and onion.

This article was originally published in June 2016.