Sunday, September 2, 2018

Telluride Mushroom Festival, pt.5: Shrimp Russula

So for my 5th micro-post about what we found at the Telluride Mushroom Festival, another new-to-me mushroom: Russula xeramlelina (and friends), commonly known as the shrimp Russula. It's pretty much the only member of the genus considered to be a choice edible.

Technically R. xeramleina is a European species only, but it's only recently that we realized that the N. American ones are genetically distinct. There are so so many species and subspecies that are classified as "shrimp Russula". According to Michael Kuo, here are the red-cappedAmerican ones: R. squalida (is that the squalid Russula? ),  R. fucosa and R texensis; the latter two are quite rare.

Most, if not all, guidebooks identify the shrimp Russula as R. xeramleina, as they haven't been updated recently. So I really have no idea exactly which variety we were finding in Colorado.

Let's talk about identification, because despite working with local experts, I'm not sure I could ID this one again. It really confuses me!

The one shown above is a perfect specimen, which means it has the following features:

  • General Russula shape, with a broad cap, thick stem (about 1" in diameter at the base), stem between 1.5" -2.5" long
  • Gills that range from crowded together (separated by the width of one gill or less) or closely spaced (separated by more than the width of one gill, but less than the width of 2). 
  • Bright red cap
  • A blush on the stem
  • Gills that are attached, attached by a notch or separated as the mushroom ages*
  • Flesh that turns yellowish when rubbed (see where my fingers had rubbed it on the stem)
  • And, officially at least, the smell of shrimp or shellfish. 

That last one is where things get tricky for me, because, officially, the defining characteristic of the shrimp Russula is the smell. Especially as the fungus ages, it's supposed to have a seafood-like smell. But as I've mentioned before, I personally struggle with odors, especially of mushrooms. I really don't have a skilled nose, like my husband does, one that can pick out complex smells. Almost every sample I whiffed smelled like a mushroom, and maybe some dirt too.

Which brings me to back to Mr. Kuo. He has a hysterical anecdote about how the shrimp Russula doesn't really smell like shrimp at all, the term "shrimp" was used as a Victorian metaphor for  a portion of the female anatomy. I won't steal his thunder, you can read it for yourself here.

(Related note: Kuo doesn't even address the real issue with attempting to ID smells based on human anatomy, is that they change from person to person and even with the same person at different times. I'm pretty familiar with my own lady bits, and the scent is different based on my cycle. As for "spermatic" odor, I can personally confirm that a diet and hydration definitely play a factor in odor). 

Humor aside, the truth is I didn't smell ANYTHING shrimpy or feminine, except mushroom.

Despite having a good nose, even my husband struggled to pick out the shrimpy odors on most shrimp Russula the group found. Even when the foray leader put some in a paper bag for the smell to concentrate, we still didn't really catch it. . . except on one single specimen, which wasn't very old, but for whatever reason everyone in the group was able to smell that one first thing.

I strongly suspect that as DNA evidence pours in we will find that the some of the different species and subspecies of so-called "shrimp" Russulas actually don't have a shrimp smell at all. We might find that because we currently believe these to all be the same mushroom, we are convincing ourselves that there is a smell there that simply isn't present.

So how CAN you identify the shrimp  and other edible red-capped species of Russula?

Well, you can try tasting them, but I warn, you should only do this if you can consistently identify the species as a 100% Russula. Beginners, novices, intermediates should not be sampling mushrooms and attempting to use taste to ID them.

Since no Russula are DEADLY poisonous, and all of the sickening varieties have a decidedly peppery flavor,  you can take a very small nibble (like the size of half a dime), put it in your mouth, and chew slowly and deliberately chew for a minute. It might take that long for the peppery flavors to be released. Afterwards, no matter what you taste, you should spit the rest out. You shouldn't swallow wild mushrooms raw.

The shrimp Russula will have a mild flavor, distinguishing it from anything that might be an issue to consume.

I can't stress enough, you should only do this if you are 100% certain that you have a Russula  species. If you were to sample a bit of a Cortinarius, for example (some of which are red), you would find that the flavor is also mild, but this doesn't make that mushroom edible. C. rubellus is reddish, and tastes good, but a piece even as small as a dime can kill an adult.

* Note: I mentioned gill attachment because it is usually an important element for ID. However, because the Russuala's gills change over the age of the mushroom, I personally wouldn't consider using them to help ID these species. 

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