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Dunton Hot Springs: mushroom foraging and soaking in Southwestern Colorado
There are few things I enjoy more than scrabbling around in forest litter, searching for fungi. Cooking and eating them is just a bonus. I know I'm not alone in my geeky proclivity, given the number of mycological societies and mushroom festivals all over the country. Mid-August is peak wild mushroom season in the Colorado Rockies, which hosts two well-known mushroom extravaganzas of its own, in Telluride and Crested Butte.
My mushroom lust is what led me to Dunton Hot Springs, a restored ghost town-turned-resort in the San Juan Mountains near Telluride. Dunton's executive chef, Dennis Morrisroe, is an accomplished forager who uses wild foods in his rustic, localized cuisine. Morrisroe particularly loves mushroom hunting, and takes interested guests on his forays into the Lizard Head Wilderness surrounding the property.
If you're into wild mushrooms, then you know that this willingness to share is a bit unusual. Foragers guard their collection spots with Pentagon-like secrecy. In the mid-nineties, a rash of murders occurred in Oregon when foragers horned in on someone else's territory (back in the day before foreign markets started competing, domestic professional mushroom foragers could fetch up to $400 a pound, depending upon the species). On one mushroom forage I did with some chefs on the Oregon Coast , we headed back to our cars, only to find a decomposing deer carcass laid across the trail (true story).
Understandably, then, I geeked out when I received an invitation to go foraging with Morrisroe. On a humid August afternoon, we headed up into the forest to look for chanterelles, and the odd boletus (porcini). I should add that unless you have considerable experience, you should always go with, or have your forage inspected by, an expert before consuming. Because, you know, liver damage or death just aren't fun.
Once we'd hiked into the woods, armed with pocket knives, Morrisroe gave me tips on what to look for. "With mushrooms, it's just as important to find what terrain they like, as well as what conditions," he explained. "Out here, for chanterelles, we look for no aspen trees, but a high concentration of pines, and good groundcover. If I know of a good area, I'll try and translate the same elevation and conditions to other areas." After several hours of tramping around, we returned to Dunton to clean our booty, which included about six pounds of chanterelles, and a couple handfuls of porcini.
Dunton Hot Springs is one of the most innovative and sublime retreats in the United States. The gold, silver, and coal mining town of Dunton, established in 1886, was abandoned in 1905. Following that, a series of owners and caretakers variously used the town as a guest ranch, and backpacker, biker, and hippie haunt. In 1995, the decrepit town was purchased by German businessman Christoph Henkel. His vision was to restore Dunton to its former glory, in the form of an intimate, rustically luxurious, Old West "resort," as well as protect the 700-acre property from further development.
Dunton is located atop a natural hot spring that bubbles up near the West Fork of the Dolores River; Henkel's original plan was to heat the property by tapping into the springs, but sediment clogged the pipes. While it's not a bona fide "eco" property, Dunton strives to take ecological measures wherever it can: Drinking water is piped in from an extinct mine on the property, low energy fluorescent lighting is in place, recycling and composting are routine. Fifty percent of the buildings are original structures; the remainders are originals from the same era that have been preserved and transported to the property.
The twelve little guest cabins and common buildings have been gorgeously restored using reclaimed materials, and designed and decorated by Henkel's' arts dealer wife, Katrin. There's also a well-stocked library (and by well-stocked, I mean there's a bottle of Dickel bourbon and a grizzly bear-skin rug to keep you company as you pore through art, architecture, and historical texts), dining hall, and saloon. The saloon's focal point is the original, 1886 bar, into which Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (allegedly) carved their names when they escaped to Dunton after robbing a bank in Telluride. Even the lush, plant-filled Bathhouse boasts graffiti from the town's original residents upon its weathered spruce walls. The indoor and outdoor soaking pools (sublime) are fed by the hot springs.
Surrounded by 1,500 acres of National Forest and situated on the river, Dunton offers guests a range of year-round outdoor activities: horseback riding (there's a stable on the property), world-class fly fishing, rafting, kayaking, mountain biking, nordic and heli-skiing, ice climbing, and snow shoeing. But Dunton is equally acclaimed for its dining. Despite its isolated location and Colorado's short growing season, the property is justly famous for both the quality of the food, as well as its commitment to supporting local ranchers and family farms whenever possible.
Morrisroe, 41, came to Dunton in April, 2008; he runs the kitchen with just one employee, sous chef John McClenny. Originally from Trinidad, Colorado, he attended culinary school in San Francisco, then stayed in California to work in a series of impressive kitchens, including The French Laundry. Eventually, he returned to his home state to become sous chef at Durango's Seasons restaurant. He first developed his sensibilities about seasonality and locality from working in California, but was further inspired by his chefs at Seasons. His love of feeding people and getting them excited about eating was ingrained at an early age. "My mother and grandmother fed me well as a kid, and taught me the fundamentals of cooking. But what I didn't realize until I came [to Dunton] is that they also taught me how to take care of people."
Morrisroe's eagerness to share his mushrooming spots is, I suspect, also because he's so inspired by the wild and cultivated ingredients growing practically out his kitchen door. He works closely with Hungry Oasis Farms in Dolores, 40 miles away, and shops at the farmers market, "to the best of my ability. We currently don't grow anything on the property because at 8,700 feet, the growing season is just too short." Colorado is composed of so many microclimates that farming in Dolores is a viable enterprise.
Free range, hormone- and antibiotic-free pork and grass-fed, grain-finished beef come from Dunton's maintenance man, Keith Evans; lamb are Navajo-Churro, a heritage breed purchased from the Navajo Nation outside of nearby Cortez. Morrisroe has also developed a good relationship with his seafood vendors, and has all of his fish Fed Ex'ed or UPS-delivered (because, one would assume, when guests pay as much as they do for a stay at Dunton, they likely have some very specific menu requests). In winter, when Dunton is buried under snow, he utilizes cellared root vegetables and hard squash, and relies on produce brought in from Colorado's "banana belt" on the Western Slope, near Grand Junction.
Morrisroe's passion, however, is foraging. "It's a nice, relaxing way to wander the woods and get your produce at the same time," he explains. "It's been a hobby of mine for about five years, after I learned about it from a baker I worked with in Durango." In addition to mushrooms, he collects odds and ends like wild mint, and chamomile. These end up in cocktails (wild mint mojitos), and on the table, in the family-style meals he describes as "fresh, simple, regional food."
Late in the afternoon after our forage, Morrisroe, a couple of helpers, and I cleaned our haul. "I'm kind of a greedy, selfish person," he joked. "When I clean mushrooms, I use a soft brush or paper towel instead of water, to retain all of the flavor." I have to agree; when you're dealing with the first wild mushrooms of the season- especially after you've collected them yourself- you want to savor every last, earthy, molecule.
At dinner that night, Morrisroe let our forage take starring role, with a simple salad of roasted porcini with arugula, Parmigiano Reggiano, and white truffle oil, and sea bass with a ragout of local corn and chanterelles, alongside Hungry Oasis Farms green beans and fingerling potatoes. Paired with marvelous selections from Cortez's Sutcliffe Wines (believe it or not, there are a handful of great winemakers in Colorado) the meal was a celebration of seasonal ingredients, and the wild beauty of Dunton.
Dunton Hot Springs offers cooking classes, as wells chef-led mushroom forages (late July through August), and assist with food preparation and cooking, by request.
Chanterelle & Gruyère Fritatta
The key to sautéing mushrooms, says Morrisroe, is to have adequate heat, and not crowd them in the pan. This allows them to caramelize, which concentrates their flavor.
Recipe by chef Dennis Morrisroe
1 large russet potato
1 lb. fresh chanterelle mushrooms, cleaned
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 T. fresh thyme, chopped
10 large eggs
¼ c. heavy cream
2 t. white truffle oil
½ c. grated Gruyère
Unsalted butter, as needed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, as needed
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Peel the potato and slice to ¼-inch thickness. Heat a 10" cast iron skillet over medium-high heat, and melt enough butter to coat the sliced potatoes. Add the potatoes, season with salt and pepper, and coat them with the butter. Place whole skillet in the oven, and roast potatoes until tender, about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, sauté the chanterelles in a small amount of butter (you may also use half olive oil), in a large frying pan over high heat. Sauté until the juices are released and reduced to a thick sauce, and the chanterelles have begun to caramelize. Remove the chanterelles from the heat, and season with the chopped garlic, thyme, salt and pepper.
Whisk the eggs with cream, truffle oil, salt, and pepper. To assemble the frittata, arrange the potatoes in a tidy layer that covers the bottom of the skillet. Add the chanterelles on top of the potatoes in another tidy layer. Pour the egg mixture over the chanterelles, making sure the tops of all of the mushrooms are moistened. Sprinkle the gruyère over the top of the egg mixture. Bake the frittata until the eggs are completely set and the edges are golden, about 30 minutes. Let the frittata rest for about 5 minutes. Using a thin spatula, gently and carefully remove the frittata from the pan onto a cutting board. A long serrated knife works well for slicing the frittata; it generally 10-12 provides slices.