VAIL, Colo. -- Mushroom hunting has never been as easy -- or comfortable -- as this.
For $200 a person, the Four Seasons Resort Vail is sending out guided expeditions in luxury SUVs to look for mushrooms. The Mushrooms & Mercedes program includes a lunchtime break with wine, cheese and prosciutto, and ends with a three-course mushroom-themed meal back at the hotel.
"We have gorgeous forests and mountains. We want the guests to get out there and experience the best in Colorado," said Angelica Palladino, director of food and beverage at Four Seasons Resort Vail.
The resort offered 40 spots on its mushroom expeditions this year, with remaining hunts Aug. 19 and Aug. 24. Nearly every spot has sold -- and not always to hotel guests. The season's first session drew seven people, all of whom are second-home owners or renters in town. The hotel plans to offer the program again next summer.
At the first session, participants gathered at 10 a.m. in the back of the hotel's Flame restaurant for complementary coffee and pastries. They chatted up guide Larry Evans, a tall, tan former University of Montana mycology professor prone to wearing his white hair in two skinny braids, and examined the multitude of mushroom shapes he had collected a day earlier.
After Evans gave a short, lively presentation on what they might find, the group set out in two Mercedes SUVs for Shrine Pass off Interstate 70. Each hunter was sent out with a basket holding a mushroom-cutting knife, energy bar, apple, water and whistle to blow for help. The SUV drivers brought sunscreen and umbrellas for shade.
Evans advised foragers to check near trees and dips in the soil, where squirrels might have smelled truffles, and to grab anything resembling a mushroom.
The group scattered into the lodgepole pines in 58-degree temperatures, some eager, some anxious. "Some people, you can tell. It's like, `Let's go have an Easter egg hunt,"' Evans said.
Within minutes, legal recruiter Morgan Warren, 36, of Houston had cut a mushroom the size of a portobello. An hour later, while sipping wine, snacking and sitting in camp chairs the Four Season staff brought, the group reconvened to examine the dozens of mushrooms they had collected.
There were round puffballs, a scaly hawkwing, and some lactarius mushrooms that are milky when cut. Evans pointed out one that he suspected was from the Amanita family, with warts on its cap, an edge like a pleated skirt, and gills underneath the cap that didn't touch the stem. It was poisonous.
Then it was back to the SUVs, which dropped everyone off at an aspen grove to stomp through a thicket of prickly plants and fallen logs to find more species.
Later in the hotel's kitchen, Executive Chef Jason Harrison's staff demonstrated how to clean mushrooms. They cooked two types that Evans deemed edible from the foragers' collection. One white mushroom that grows in clumps tasted like asparagus. A large, brown cap of another had an earthier taste, the group decided.
The hotel staff poured more wine.
Then before the Flame restaurant opened for dinner, Harrison seated the adventurers for a mushroom and arugula salad with ice wine vinaigrette and chicken chasseur (also known as hunter's chicken, with a mushroom-based sauce) atop sweet corn. Harrison switched the menu from last year's mushroom risotto, so repeat foragers wouldn't be bored. A dessert of chocolate and macaroons followed.
Evans noted not much of the group's harvest had made it to their plates, whether because it was toxic or not high enough quality to eat.
"That was the takeaway for me -- how bad I was at mushroom picking," quipped Warren's husband, David Warren. "I picked 99 pounds of mushrooms, none of which I can eat."
Morgan Warren said she still had fun foraging with an expert. "I wouldn't do that on my own," she said.