Hungarian emigre with sixth sense for fungi keeps gourmets in hog heaven
PENINSULA - "It's a lovely walk, and we might even find some mushrooms," said Veronica Williams, as she gathered her basket and tied a red scarf around her head while preparing to hike up a trail at Leadbetter Point State Park.
Her license plate reads: ALLWILD, in honor of her business of selling wild mushrooms to local restaurants. Williams has become famous around the Peninsula, even by people who don't necessarily know her name, simply as "the mushroom lady."
Leadbetter Point is one of her regular spots to hunt for mushrooms, and she often leads mushroom picking classes out in that area as well.
"I've taken classes out here with marvelous results," she said in her Hungarian accent.
It's somewhat easy to get lost in Leadbetter if you're not careful, she cautioned. She told of one time when she was out picking with one of her grandsons and became lost.
"Oh, that was awful!" she said, adding that she started yodeling to keep the bears away.
"Grandma, why are you yodeling?" she said her grandson asked her.
"Just in case we meet a bear," she told him. "That kid came over to me and he grabbed my hand and never let go until we got out in the road - and he's not an affectionate kid, you know. I'll never forget that."
She said she learned to yodel when picking in the mountains in order to announce herself to the bears, so "they go their way and they don't bother you."
As she walks along, she keeps her eyes scanning the ground in front and to the sides of her. She said she has "mushroom eyes" that help her look for the fungi.
"If there were any mushrooms here I'd see it. My eyes are always looking," she explained. "You have to have mushroom eyes. I can go 50 mph on a highway and I'll spot'em."
She said she has passed down this trait to her twin grandsons, whom she taught when they were 3-year-olds. Williams was that age herself when she first learned from her mother in their native Hungary.
"My mother took me out when I was three years old; I remember that just like I remember today, picking porcinis up into the mountains," she recalled. "I swear I fell in love with mushrooms right there. After that, I didn't need my mother - I could go by myself. It was no big deal, I always could find them."
Williams, who immigrated to America in the 1950s with her family, said she has a "sixth sense of sorts" when it comes to mushrooms. She told of how for years she would not eat a certain mushroom just because she had a bad feeling about. She said she found out years later that mycologists, who study fungi, found it to be carcinogenic.
Hot on the trail"We're looking for about four different types of mushrooms," she explained while walking along. "We're looking for the red scaber, we're looking for the turkey mushroom, the Lactarius deliciosus, and the other one is the matsutake. What we're going to find - that's another question."
She sights some along the side of the path and points out that they are not of the edible variety.
"These types of mushrooms are no good, absolutely no good," she said. "They're brown, they're inferior quality and not edible."
There are so many types of mushrooms that grow in the wild in this area, many of which are either not edible or could have adverse affects on health, that it is best to do initial exploring with someone like Williams who has a great deal of experience in that area.
"Absolutely!" she agreed. "Even people who know mushrooms get burned."
She told a story of an Italian man in California who recently ate a death cap mushroom thinking it was edible and died.
"I strongly advise - you don't know it, you don't eat it," she said.
When asked if she considered herself a botanist or mycologist she replied, "I consider myself 'all wild' and pick anything that's available. I wouldn't say I'm a botanist anymore than I'd say I'm a mycologist."
She said if anything, she is an amateur mycologist, "that way I'm safe."
While walking along she finds an Amanita mascaria, a large, red-capped mushroom with large white spots.
"This is the one that some people eat, they think they're going to get high on - and some people get the sh*t's from 'em," she said with a laugh.
She said she ignores amanitas for the most part because so many are poisonous and two are deadly, "some are indifferent and some are delicious."
She told of one rather delectable Amanita mushroom named after Caesar, which she thinks is completely ironic.
"They named this mushroom after Caesar, which is idiotic, because when he wanted to get rid of his wives, all he did was feed them poison mushrooms and they died - this is true!"
Mushroom picking is a year-round activity on the Peninsula, with different varieties blossoming at different times.
"I can pick here all year," she said of the area. "I'm already picking the hedgehog [mushroom] and I pick winter chantrel."
The most abundant time of year is during the autumn months of September and October. Williams also dispelled the myth that right after it rains is the best time to look for mushrooms, saying that mushrooms grow whenever it is their time.
"What a gorgeous day! Oh my gosh, if we could just find a few matsu's, just one or two or three would be fine."
And Williams got her wish as she came to the end of the trail and into a clearing. She found a few Lactarius deliciosus, turkeys and two matsutakes. She said that it doesn't take her long to assess the area - if she's going to find any, she'll know right away.
"If I don't find anything in these flats, that means they're over, there is no more," she said. "I'm hoping for a few late-bloomers."
"Oh, it's a good one," she said as she cut the step of a Lactarius deliciosus she found.
She said that once a person learns to appreciate what a good mushroom looks like, it's "just like going into the store and you take a parsnip, a carrot or a celery. You learn this. This is why you take lessons."
Williams proclaimed the Peninsula is a prime place to find edible mushrooms.
"Oh my God, is it ever! Every nook and cranny. The Peninsula has so many mushrooms."
She said she is very lucky because she has a lot of secret places she hunts for them, many of which are on private property. That is how she is able to supply mushrooms to her many clients.
She started her business about 25 years ago, selling mushrooms to local restaurants including the Ark, the Shoalwater and 42nd St. Cafe. Because her business is so unique, she is able to sell the mushrooms at her own market price - at a great savings, she might add.
"I have the ability to set my own price, which is always way below what everybody else charges," she said.
She scoffed at the idea of restaurants buying mushrooms from a wholesale distributor, saying those mushrooms, like the ones you find in grocery stores, have little if any flavor because they are grown indoors - one of the reasons she takes pride in the name of her business.
"You eat a mushroom that's grown wild, it's a complete different story."
But it's not just mushrooms that she looks for "all wild" either - she also sells a variety of wild berries, sea beans, wild arugala and fiddlehead ferns. She also takes special requests from her clients as well.
"Cheri [Walker, chef at 42nd St. Cafe] says, 'Could you find me some stinging nettles to make stinging-nettle soup?' So I go out and find her some stinging nettles."
And those that she sells to have learned over the years that despite the fact she is only a self-proclaimed amateur mycologist, they can trust Williams when it comes to mushrooms and anything else.
"What I don't eat, I don't sell."