The Candy Cap Complex
“Sweet!” (slap) “Bitter!” (slap) “Sweet!” (slap) “Bitter?” (slap) “Sweet?” (whap)… I must be dreaming. It seems like Chinatown. Nicholson’s got her pinned against a log, a real sour, or is that bitter, look on his face; he’s really working her over. I can’t quite see who it is, I think it’s a her, the full brim of her hat obscures my view, but he’s sure hell-bent on whuppin’ the truth out of her. “Sweet! Bitter! Bittersweet! I don’t know! But a lotta people love me!” she’s blubbering, the now tattered brim of her cap suddenly turned upwards, revealing… gills!? Yes, exquisite quasi-decurrent delicately pastel cinnamon-pink gills, my god she’s lovely, her lamellae oozing misty white latex, the shade of almost melted snow, and that perfume! She’s the real thing, all right. I catch a waft, I know it from a previous life. It’s an alluring, seductive scent, designed to capture a man’s soul, maybe sink his ships…”Stop! Stop”, I shout. “She’s too brittle to be handled that way!” I could feel myself waking up. Besides, I had to get her out of my mind, I couldn’t stop thinking about what a dish she’d make… “Damn”, I mutter, shaking mushroom dream fragments from my own rather tomentose pileal-cranium, “I always like to think we get stuff sorted out in our dreams. That was more like …real life…”
So it goes with our beloved Candy Caps. Their rich and exotic flavor elements are legendary, shining through as a fresh ingredient in savory dishes, and, when dried, their pseudo-sweet mapley tones can simply amaze in desserts. And yet, there remains a persistence of isolated reports of mentionable bitterness encountered from various culinary efforts involving Candy Caps, or should I say alleged Candy Caps? At the very least, I would say, the Candy Cap complex.
More than one species qualifies as a Candy Cap. In the conifer and oak woodlands of rainy Northern California, we primarily encounter Lactarius rubidus, listed in many currently available reference books as Lactarius fragilis var. rubidus. Lactarius fragilis is the “original” Candy Cap, with a reportedly more pronounced maple aroma when fresh than L. rubidus. L. fragilis is common to the Southeastern US. The Rufous Candy Cap, Lactarius rufulus, is often more prevalent in the presence of oak, especially in the drier southern climates of California. It tends to run a little larger than L. rubidus, with a less pronounced maple aroma, sometimes slightly acrid taste, and is less likely to have a hollow stem. L. camphoratus is reported from the mixed forests of the Northeastern US, with a slightly ruddier complexion and frequently umbonate cap. It possesses more of a curry-powder scent when dried than the maple suggestions of the other Candy Caps, and may ultimately not really belong on the “candy” list. All of these species exude watery-white unchanging latex, unless of course they are not exuding at all at the time of inspection, in which case they are probably beginning to dessicate, which typically amplifies their key identifying aroma(s). All are mild when tasted raw. All have non-viscid, dull, non-zonate pileal surfaces. All are edible.
So, this may all seem somewhere between simple and obvious to the would-be knowledgeable, now maybe salivating, neophyte mycophagist; let’s cook ‘em up and chow ‘em down, they may say. Well, not so fast. There is this small matter of Candy Cap look-alikes. Over the years, I’ve had occasion to extricate a sobering spectrum of fungal imposters from so-called Candy Cap collections. Many of my fellow foray leader types could tell similar tales, that on disturbingly numerous occasions, they’ve found cute little poisonous and/or foul-tasting look-alikes blithely floating around with the real comestibles in collection baskets of proud “newbie” collectors. Typically, the less myco-sophistication the misguided picker possesses, the more insidious the Candy Cap identification error is capable of being.
Galerina autumnalis, the deadly amatoxin producing species, doesn’t look all that much like a Candy Cap, unless of course you don’t really know what you’re doing. Nonetheless, this is a known species of confusion for inexperienced collectors, probably because of the proximity of shared habitat by the two species, and of course, they are both technically LBMs (little brown mushrooms). Galerina grows on dead wood; the mycorrhizal L. rubidus typically is found in duff. However, we have had occasion to witness Candy Caps growing on moss and duff covered fallen logs, intermixed with Galerina autumnalis growing on the same dead log! The Galerina has a smooth viscid cap surface, rusty-brown spore color, and an annulus, all features very unlike the dry cap, whitish spores and absentee annulus of the Candy Cap. Most readily distinguishing of all, however, is the difference between the cellular natures of their fungal flesh. Unlike the inherently brittle/granular tissue context of the Candy Cap’s family, Russulaceae, the Galerina and several other alleged look-alikes outside of the Russula family, including species of Clitocybe, Collybia and Cortinarius genera, are composed of longitudinally filamentous fungal tissue. If you apply pressure in opposite directions to their stalks, they tend to bend rather than snap clean as does the chalk-like composition of a Lactarius stalk. For that reason, I recommend collecting Candy Caps with thumb and fingers only, put the knife away. The process of snapping each stipe in order to discard the duff debris adhering to the base of the stalks, also acts to verify the mushroom’s familial identification, thereby eliminating inadvertent collection of any nasty tough-stemmed genera, such as those mentioned above.
So, if it’s brittle and has latex, it’s a Lactarius. Mind you, they can sometimes be stubborn and refuse to lactate. That’s a problem one just has to work around, when encountered. As always, when in doubt, throw it out.
A primary technique for Lactarius identification is observation of the latex color, both at the moment of exposure and also after possible changes to the latex color as a result of exposure. Breaking, cutting or bruising the Lactarius flesh typically releases its latex for view. Candy Caps have thin white latex, like watered down non-fat milk, that does not change color after exposure. If the latex viewed reminds you of whole milk or cream, or if the latex turns to yellow after exposure, or stains paper yellow overnight, the mushroom is not a Candy Cap.
Candy Caps run in pleasing cinnamon/burnt orange colors, with minor variations in hue and tone to be expected from age or environmental factors. Color does not resolutely distinguish them from other Lactarius species, but their coloration and odor, combined with their watery latex and the minutely wrinkled or bumpy “dry” cap surface is almost all you need to know for identification, once you have been properly introduced. Candy Caps are never glossy, shiny, viscid, subviscid or sticky. The eye readily discerns this cap surface distinction, unless the mushrooms are wet, in which case the specimens may need some dry air to reveal their true nature. Most people do not perceive the famous maple aroma in fresh specimens, but rather a distinctive, mild pungent fragrance.
Let’s discuss a few of the usual and potential Western US imposters, and their various departures from the desired identifying macroscopic features of the “true” Candy Cap. Lactarius xanthogalactus is a very common mis-collection here in Northern California, probably because it is quite common and frequently in co-habitation with Candy Caps. It’s cap is of the wrong color, more grayish-orange and zonate than the richer toned and more evenly colored L. rubidus. Its lactose turns rapidly yellow. Its taste can be somewhat bitter or acrid, and it is considered poisonous. Lactarius rufus is darker, more brick red than L. rubidus. It has white unchanging latex that stains white paper yellow. It has a prohibitively strong acrid taste and is considered poisonous. Lactarius subviscidus is viscid when wet, with a brownish orange to reddish brown hue, possessing scanty white latex, and a mild to slightly acrid taste. Lactarius subflammeus is reddish-brown, paler towards the cap margin, moist to subviscid, has white unchanging latex and a slowly developing acrid taste. Lactarius luculentus has two varieties, luculentus and laetus. The cap of L. luculentus v. luculentus is shaded towards a more ochraceous coloration. It has buff colored spores and acrid taste. L. luculentus v. laetus is more typically “candy” colored at the cap, has a mild taste and white spores. Both varieties have white unchanging latex and viscid/subviscid cap surfaces. The smallish L. thiersii (!) has a smooth dry cap surface becoming rimose with maturity, no distinct odor or taste, and thin white unchanging latex. L. desjardinii (!) has white unchanging latex, a paler orange-gray hue to the viscid to subvisid cap, and acrid taste. L. cocoseolens has a viscid cap with a gray or brownish orange hue, thin white unchanging latex that slowly stains the exposed flesh context yellow, and odor of coconut when dried.
Having sorted this sordid mess, the beleaguered mycophagist is now ready to finally indulge in some sweet, sweet dining, but for one small detail. It seems that in real life, Candy Caps, too, are sometimes bitter, or at least, so I have been told. Personally, I have not much had that problem, having consumed copious quantities over the years, except once when I got a nothing-subtle-about-this-bitterness mushroom in my mouth. That was many years ago, with others helping to collect the mushrooms, so an error in identification, as we have discussed, was hardly out of the question. Nonetheless, I can’t disregard all the reports, too many people whose opinions I respect have assured me that bitterness does indeed sometimes emanate, to a fault, from Candy Cap preparations. Re-reading David Arora’s comments in Mushrooms Demystified, I note that their fresh taste is described as “mild or slightly bitter”.
So, Candy Caps are sweet, without any sugar, of course, but they are bitter, sometimes. And people do love to eat them. Dried Candy Caps seem to have reached a cult status as a secret, or not so secret, dessert ingredient. Prepared fresh, they can be delectably memorable, with a rich spice effect manifesting after the “maple” cooks off in the sauté pan. The perplexing issue of “why the occasional bitterness?” remains inexplicable at present, apparently requiring further observation and some dedicated gustatorial research. We could always conjecture that poor quality specimens or poor handling, aside from misidentification by the collector, could be a factor. Bitterness components might be environmentally induced. Or, some Candy Cap “communities” may simply have the genetic proclivity for bitterness. Who knows? Certainly, some people are more sensitive to bitterness than others, and may find repulsive what other mycophagists regard as a charming background flavor note. Fortunately for me, I think I may have mostly burned my bitter taste buds out a long time ago, so these cute little mushrooms always taste great to me. Bon appetit.