Eating off the land

Wild bounties come to fruit toward summer's end

Winemaker and chef Yvon Gros shows how to pick and clean dandelion greens when seeking out homegrown salad ingredients. Summer storms have brought new growth to wild greens.

The makings of a fresh salad don’t always come from a plastic bag. Wild greens such as dandelions, purlsane and miner’s lettuce offer alternatives for adventurous eaters.

Beautiful but poisonous, an Amanita muscaria (fly agaric) pokes through the grasses on Grand Mesa. Stories abound about this unmistakable beauty, which one guidebook says produces “bizarre mental experiences.”

Serviceberries are among the wild fruit turning ripe in the backcountry. Black bears feed heavily on berries and acorns when preparing to hibernate, and recent rains have made it certain bears will have plenty to forage on.


A few tips for successful mushroom collecting

The No. 1 tip is to make sure you are 100 percent sure of the mushroom. Many good guidebooks and cellphone apps make mushroom ID easy.

■ Many collectors carry a basket or flat-bottomed cloth bag, which allow the mushrooms to “breathe” and protects them from breaking. Plastic grocery bags might seem handy, but they create a warm, moist environment that makes mushrooms disintegrate quickly.

■ Cut your mushrooms at the base using a pocketknife, kitchen knife or scissors.

■ The cleaner the mushroom the better, and the more cleaning you do in the field the less work at home. Some collectors carry a small, soft brush (an old toothbrush works fine) to clean dirt and debris off their mushrooms.

■ Select only unblemished specimens. If you’d pass it up in a grocery store, don’t pick it.

■ Don’t overharvest. Leave some for others and so the mushrooms can continue to grow and multiply.

■ Don’t mix edible mushrooms with any unidentified or non-edible specimens. Poisonous mushrooms can contaminate other mushrooms, so keep them physically separate from each other.

■ Once you’re home, store them in the refrigerator straight out of your basket. Don’t rinse your mushrooms (they deteriorate faster) unless you are eating them right away.

■ Dry rinsed mushrooms on a clean towel.

The bounties of the land, and not just the bounty in your garden, are never easier to find than late summer and fall.

Berries are ripening, greens are sprouting, mushrooms are blasting through the soil.

The recent rains brought new life to the mountains, which were starting to look a bit parched (see The Daily Sentinel for articles on wildfires in Colorado and elsewhere) and frustrating a lot of dedicated foragers.

However, a couple of weeks of rain changes everything, and a recent encounter with my ‘shroom-hunting friends from the North Fork Valley, where “eating local” takes on a whole new meaning, indicated the time had come to stomp around a few favorite places.

The first stop was to drop in on Yvon Gros at Leroux Creek Inn and Vineyards on Rogers Mesa. If you didn’t know the amiable Gros was French, you might deduce it from his immense talent of wresting a delicious meal from things you and I might overlook.

In the spring, he forages among the still-bare vines for wild greens. In the fall, when he isn’t filtering and bottling wine or harvesting the acres of wine grapes growing in his Provence-like landscape, he’s out hiking the backcountry plucking mushrooms.

Earlier this summer, after a particularly memorable meal had guests begging for a recipe, he simply laughed, grabbed a small kitchen knife and said, “Come, I’ll show how hard it is.”

A few steps into the vineyard, he bent over, swiped the knife across the ground and stood, his hand full of … dandelions?

“See? In the spring and summer when these are young and tender, they are delicious,” he said, laughing again. “Just be careful and don’t cut yourself.

“When it gets too hot down here, I go up on Grand Mesa and all summer I find young dandelions.”

Eating off the land isn’t new. American Indians and settlers in many countries kept watch for the first greens of spring because those sprouts were key to surviving the dull, vitamin- and mineral-depleted winter diets.

A generation ago we were being admonished to eat naturally by Euell Gibbons, wild plant expert and author of “Stalking the Wild Asparagus,” among other titles, and today it’s people such as Steve Rinella, hunting-rights spokesman and star of the cable TV show “Meateater,” pushing us to step out of bounds, literally and figuratively.

Dandelions, miner’s lettuce, purslane and numerous roots and seeds provide a natural larder for those adventurous enough to seek them out.

With the summer rains here, there are mushrooms and berries to add to the mix. A short drive on Grand Mesa this week turned up ripe serviceberries (a favorite of black bears, with whom you may have to compete) and the still-green but promising wild apples, acorns and chokecherries.

Also a variety of edible and non-edible mushrooms, and yes, it’s important to know which is which. Boletes, oysters, puffballs, scaly urchins and, of course, the much sought-after apricot-hued chanterelles are among the fungi poking through the soil.

But you’re on your own. Favorite mushroom spots are protected like favorite children — everyone loves to admit they have one, and they expect you to know how to get one of your own.

“Of course it’s a secret,” admonished Gros after a visitor pleaded to know where Gros went for his prized mushrooms. “It takes me 45 minutes to get there from here, and my kidneys are shaken apart, but it’s worth it.”

He said he has a friend with a helicopter who volunteered to fly Gros to his ‘shroom spot.

“I don’t know,” he pondered. “It would be much easier and I could go there in just minutes. But then I’d have to show him and, well, he’s French, you know, and I’m not sure I can trust him not to tell.”


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