Down the rabbit hole

Posted on 8/28/2013
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The Eagle Wild Mushroom and Wine Weekend delves into the misunderstood world of fungi

Caption: Larry Evans, the self-proclaimed “Indiana Jones of Mushrooms,” gives tips on mushroom foraging at Eagle’s festival in 2009. Photo special to SneakPEAK.

By Phil Lindeman

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Eagle Wild Mushroom and Wine Weekend

Friday, Aug. 30

6 p.m. – Mushrooms, Merlot and Mingling, Paradigms ($25)

Saturday, Aug. 31

8:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. – Presentations by experts Larry Evans and Katrina Blair, Brush Creek Pavilion ($20)

10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. – Foraging in Eagle (free to the public)

2:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. – Mushroom and edibles identification, Brush Creek Studio (preferred seating for pass holders)

6 p.m. – Mushroom and wine tasting, Brush Creek Pavilion (included in grand tasting)

7 p.m. – Grand tasting with three-course meal, Brush Creek Pavilion ($75)

Sunday, Sept. 1

9:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. – Presentations by experts Larry Evans and Katrina Blair, Brush Creek Pavilion ($20)

11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. – Foraging in Eagle (free to the public)

3 p.m. – Mushroom and edibles identification, Brush Creek Studio (preferred seating for pass holders)

4 p.m. – Buttons and Bonfire, Bonfire Brewing taproom ($30)

Passes for individual days are sold online for $85 (Saturday) and $45 (Sunday). Sales end Aug. 30. For a complete schedule and descriptions of each event, see the official website.

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For reasons both legitimate and laughable, wild mushrooms earn a bad rap, and few people know this truth better than Larry Evans.

The self-proclaimed “Indiana Jones of Mushrooms” has spent more than three decades convincing foragers, city dwellers and just about everyone who will listen to love fungi. Like his whip-wielding counterpart, Evans goes about his business the old-fashioned way: By traveling the world in search of mushrooms, jetting from the alpine forests of his Montana home to the lush, impossibly green creek beds of Australia, New Zealand, Tibet and nearly a dozen more countries. His arsenal includes a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the fungi world – he can recite the family, genus and species of more than a hundred varieties – and two albums of mushroom songs. Yes, that’s right – two full-length albums dedicated to ending “fungi-phobia,” as Evans puts it.

Needless to say, Evans has done more for the lowly mushroom than anyone since French chefs first served truffles, and he’s fast become a cornerstone of Eagle’s annual mushroom festival. But like the unassuming fungi it honors, the festival has grown and evolved over the years, and it now boasts events on par with Evans’ magnetic eccentricity. What better way to end a day of foraging than with a three-course meal, all prepared by down-valley chefs using the fruits of the day and paired with hand-selected wines from across the globe?

“I think the Eagle fest this year will be extraordinary because the season has been a bit delayed and prolonged by the cool summer, so we are seeing a good variety of mushrooms now,” said Evans, hinting at the possibilities for endless dish combos. “This really will be an exceptional end of summer event – just saying.”

New and improved

After six years of small yet fervent interest, the festival returns this weekend with a new name and renewed focus. The rebranded Eagle Wild Mushroom and Wine Weekend combines Evans’ passion with gourmet grub and, of course, fine wines. It’s an ingenious way to make a fungus more palatable.

“Eagle has always been unique among the mushroom festivals I do because it is inexpensive and offers so much in terms of learning, foraging and sampling the wild foods,” said Evans, who will come to Eagle after presenting at a festival in Crested Butte. “(At) no other festival do the participants get so much opportunity to learn all about wild edibles, from the ecology to the preparation and sampling of the wild things. Last year we had nearly 20 different species of mushroom that people sampled.”

And that’s the true novelty of the festival: Burgeoning mycologists will collect and identify local mushrooms, then see how those varieties can be transformed into eclectic fare. Event founder Tom Boni passed the reigns to event planners at Always Mountain Time, and he’s excited to see how the locavore approach will play out.

“The farm-to-table aspect has become a very important piece of this,” said Boni, who built the original festival with Evans. “You always worry about providing the best experience and opportunities to learn, but you can’t predict nature. There are about three months of mushroom season, and even if the foraging piece doesn’t come together, people leave with other tools to use through time.”

The cornerstone of the weekend is the grand tasting on Saturday evening. At 6 p.m., guests begin at Brush Creek Pavilion with a mushroom and wine pairing. The hour-long intro leads into a three-course meal prepared by chef Michael Connolly of Adams Rib Ranch and chef Steven “Juice” Morrison of Old Kentucky Tavern. The tasting ends with homemade truffles and Palisade peach pie from Magpie’s in Eagle.

Although the two chefs won’t work solely with foraged mushrooms – it would be hard to feed the estimated 70 or so attendees with what they find – the menu shines with locally sourced beef, vegetables, mushrooms and other wild edibles, like berries and flowers.

On Sunday, the foodie theme continues with Buttons and Bonfire, a sampling dinner held at the Bonfire Brewing taproom in downtown. Five local restaurants will prepare mushroom dishes to show off their talents – HP’s Provisions brings mushroom empanadas, while Pazzo’s boasts mushroom and roasted red pepper lasagna – and brewery co-owner Andy Jessen will pair each with a brew. Jessen and brewmaster Matt Wirtz didn’t craft any beers just for the festival, but their revolving selection of nearly 20 brews makes finding a perfect match simple.

“I can’t think of anyone who has done beers specifically for mushrooms, and this festival could give us the chance to do more unexpected things with beer in the future,” said Jessen, who will join the festival for the first time this year. “Going forward, it will be fun to play with the mushroom aspect more.”

Beyond the fungi

In a nod to the original format, this year’s festival still includes several presentations by Evans and new guest, wild edibles expert Katrina Blair. Evans and Boni are excited to have Blair on-board – the Durango native grew up foraging in Colorado and nearly matches Evans with wild-food knowledge. Her mother stressed the nutritional and holistic side of eating what she gathered, and during a presentation on Saturday at 9:30 a.m., she’ll delve into the unspoken benefits of native Colorado plants.

“Wild foods are very much my passion, and I feel that when humanity learns to eat wild foods, we’ll have a better understanding of how those foods relate back to the world as a whole,” Blair said.

And Blair is more than an avid locavore. Her Durango-based non-profit and café, Turtle Lake Refuge, serves raw-food lunches throughout the year and crafts everything from pesto to ice cream with local plants. The Colorado-minded presentation will hone in on abundant fruits like the mineral-rich Amelanchier, or serviceberry. The small berries grow throughout the state near creeks and rivers, and they’re packed with carbs and minerals – perfect for hungry hikers.

“It’s the sort of knowledge that’s beneficial for survival on planet Earth,” said Blair. “I’m excited to share that knowledge with other people who can hopefully take it somewhere new and unexpected.”

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