Mushroom Culture

The heavily forested slopes of La Malinche, one of the four volcanoes in the Tlaxcala area, rich with many species of fungi, have blessed indigenous Indian groups with their bounty for hundreds of years. Mushroom collecting is an ancient tradition with deep cultural significance, dating back at least two thousand years in this region. Ethno mycologist Adriana Montoya, studies the modern day mushroom culture of these Indians, and shared her findings with our group. Although mushrooms are gathered for sale and are very important to the local economy, Adriana has found that native people also use mushrooms for food, tinder, cosmetics, insecticide, medicine, and ornaments.

Mushroom gathering is a family affair that includes even very young children. By accompanying parents during mushroom forays, children learn to recognize the most desirable varieties and learn the secrets of where to find them in the forest. One of our guides, Guadalupe, carries her month old daughter with her as we tramp through the forest where she spends much of her time. Her two preschool children accompany another female guide.

Walking through Javier Mina, we happen upon people engaging in the food dehydrating process used in this remote area. On tarps in a roadway, beans, mushrooms, corn, and seeds dry in the sun. When drying is complete, villagers sack their goods for shipping. Mushrooms gathered in this area are sent to local markets and to Mexico City, where they continue on to brokers in Paris, Buenos Aires and Milan. This wonderful cottage industry makes it possible for the indigenous people to continue to live in some of the most spectacular geography on earth.

Mushroom Foraging

Each day's foray yields different species of fungi depending on the type of forest visited. We collect at elevations of 8,500-10,000 feet in areas where access is often difficult. Steep slopes and slippery embankments test our mettle. The group is quickly becoming rather like a family, sharing fun and sometimes helping each other survive. Usually, we ride in a small bus but, on the trip to Cañada Grande, we transfer to the back of a dump truck for the last two kilometers. The driver navigates a dry, rutted streambed to reach our destination. Hanging on to the sideboards as the truck sways and bumps along, the group ducks on cue to avoid the low tree branches. Deep into the forest the truck stops, we climb out of the truck and fan out to begin the mushroom hunt.

Two hours later, the truck horn sounds three times, the signal for us to return to the truck and enjoy lunch in the forest. Rogelio Salas, once owner of a restaurant in Mexico City, coordinates our meals. Watermelon juice and wild mushroom tamales made with blue corn are the group's favorite. Local peaches are in season, and are served for dessert. They are quite small but delectable.

As a beginner, I collect every mushroom I see and carefully place it into my foray basket with great excitement. In a few days, with more knowledge, I gather selectively according to my own personal scale. I pick the choicest, most unusual, largest, prettiest, smallest and species unknown to me. At day's end, the group's collecting effort is studied. Identification tables are set up by our expert mycologists, with knowledgeable trip members assisting.

Loraine Berry, who has been interested in mushrooms for at least forty years, and is here to learn even more, assists with the identification task. Through a process of consultation, debate and research, the specimens are labeled with Latin and local names.

Mushroom spores are examined under a microscope for any specimens defying identification by other means. To quote Nance, one of our trippers, "looking at spores under a microscope was not something I thought of as a vacation plan, but once you took a close look they were so interesting! Some of those tiny spores have ventriculated surfaces so that they can attach themselves to any hapless creature or bit of passing debris." The mycologists continue their work late into the evening, investigating, photographing, and cataloging the day's foray result to add to their research data.

The local people collect sixty edible mushroom species. Although we do not find that many, we collect enough edibles each day to feast on. Once the genus and species of a particular mushroom has been established and everyone has looked over the day's foray results, the best tasting mushrooms are transferred to the kitchen. The gracious staff at La Escondida allow us to invade their rustic kitchen to prepare our "tasting". The night I assist, we prepare Boletus luridiformis, Lactarius salmonicolor, Boletus pinophilus (pante), Clavariadelphus truncatus, Tricholomata clitocybe gibba, Cantharellas, Hygrophorus chrysodon (huevito) and Helvella crispa (oreja de padre). These are prepared simply, sautéed separately with a little butter and salt, to allow the individual flavors to be appreciated. Loraine Berry, very experienced with mushroom identification and preparation, says that "they may be edible, but some mushrooms are not incredible". She was right, they were not equally delicious.


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