Are You a Mycophyle?

23 09 2013

Happy Autumn–like flipping a switch, the change felt sudden. Gray skies, wet bike rides and raincoats sprout up as quickly as those mushrooms start appearing. What a perfect place we live in to learn and perfect this autumn activity! Here are a couple tips and suggestions if you’d like to learn more or try it out:

  • There’s an old saying, “When in doubt, throw it out!”  Never pick and eat a mushroom if you are not sure what it is.
  • It’s fun to go with friends: take your mushroom-loving pal with you to guide you, especially if you’re a beginner. Don’t forget your mushroom identification guidebook!
  • Attend a mushroom ID class. Here are a couple of Oregon resources:

REI in Eugene is holding a “Finding and Enjoying Wild Mushrooms” course on November 5th, 2013. Find more info here–

The Oregon Mycological Society, based in Portland, hosts field trips, mycology camps, monthly meetings and more–

So, we Eugenians welcome Autumn and mushroom season!  Just another way to enjoy the outdoors, especially in the rain.  We’ll end with a link to an article from the Smithsonian Magazine that highlights Oregon’s particularly welcoming environment for “the mushroom chase.”  Put your rainboots on and go play in the rain!

The  Surprisingly Exciting World of Mushroom Picking

In the forests of Oregon, foragers, farmers and chefs  have their eyes stuck on the ground looking for one thing: wild mushrooms

 By Rachael Brown, January 27, 2011

Mushrooms growing in Oregon

A marriage of local foods advocacy and  recession-consciousness, mushroom foraging is especially hot stuff in rainy  Oregon. (Gary Braasch / Corbis)         

It’s ten minutes past 7 p.m. on a Friday in Eugene, and I’m squeezed into a  folding chair in a crowded basement classroom at the University of Oregon,  staring at a table covered with mushrooms. People are still pushing into the  room, filling the chairs and settling themselves cross-legged on the floor. The  air is thick with the smell of fungi. All around, I overhear snatches of  conversation as old friends and new acquaintances swap lore and advice: “Forget  hiking anymore,” one white-haired woman in a fleece jacket and boots tells the  graduate student sitting near her. “You’ll always be looking down!”

We’ve all assembled to listen to Ed Fredette, a local self-proclaimed fungi  enthusiast, talk about finding and identifying wild mushrooms. Fredette walks us  through the basics of what he calls “mushroom chasing,” all the while repeating  his tried and true mantra, “When in doubt, throw it out!”  Even though only a  few species of poisonous mushrooms have been identified in Eastern Oregon,  people here are still worried about becoming sick from wild fungi. By the time  he finally finishes answering questions, almost three hours have passed—this  crowd is very, very, interested in mushrooms, and for good reason.

A marriage of local foods advocacy and recession-consciousness, mushroom  foraging is especially hot stuff in rainy Oregon, where local ’shroomers picked  literally tons of mushrooms last year, some earning hundreds of dollars for a  day’s harvest. (Pickers also hunt for fungi in upper Michigan, Canada and New  England.) From locovore chefs to DIY freegans, thousands of people scour the  public forests and Cascade Mountains for mushrooms to sell at farmers’ markets  and on Craigslist, or simply for their own identification or cooking. Fliers  advertising baskets of matsutake or chanterelles fill the community bulletin  boards at organic groceries across the state.

There are more than 5,000 types of fungi growing in the Pacific Northwest,  where the heavy seasonal rains combine with conifer forests that stretch from  the mountains down to the coastline, creating an ideal habit for some of the  most popular edible species of mushrooms. Morels and the coveted matsutakes  appear in the spring, and in the late summer and fall, the forests are filled  with golden chanterelles, hen of the woods, and boletes. Winter brings hedgehogs  and for those who know how to find them, valuable crops of truffles.

Fredette is just one of the many searching for fungi, and he exemplifies the  grass-roots ethic that characterizes the pastime. “Don’t call me an expert,” he  cautions. “I’m not a mycologist, but I’ve been doing this a long time, and I’m  still alive and healthy.”

Dustin Olsen, the 31-year-old owner of The Mushroomery, in Lebanon, Ore., built his mushroom farm  by hand when he decided to turn his hobby into a full-time business. Now he  spends two days a week on his farm cultivating specimens, two days foraging and  two days selling his harvest at farmers’ markets around the state as well as to  restaurants, grocery stores and community-supported agriculture (CSA) customers.  Olsen estimates that he earns about $25,000 to $30,000 a year simply from the  wild mushrooms he gathers in the mountains.

“We’re in the right place in the right time,” Olsen says. “Just five years  ago there were people who thought I was crazy, and now people are starting to  come around and see the enormous value of mushrooms. They have vitamin D and  amazing amounts of protein, and medicinal uses that haven’t really been studied  until recently. More and more mushroom farms are popping up, and people are  realizing that mushrooms have so many flavors; there are mushrooms that taste  like maple syrup and ones that taste like lobster.”

“If you’re not excited by finding mushrooms, then you should take your  pulse,” says Fred Shipley, the president of the Oregon Mycological  Society, which educates people about mushrooms by holding monthly talks and  sponsoring forays. The organization has about 900 members, but lest anyone  mistake mushroom chasers as a homogenous bunch of environmental foodies, Shipley  is quick to point out the diversity within Oregon’s larger mushroom scene, from  the academic researchers at Oregon State University to the Asian and Latino  transient pickers who follow the mushroom season up the Pacific Coast.

“There’s a class of people who only want to know where they can get the  edibles, while others are more interested in identification or toxicology,” according to Shipley, while sustainability and localism seem to be drivers among  the younger or more urban populations. But there are also rural foragers for  whom mushrooms are a key food source and a Slavic community carrying on a  cultural tradition, in addition to those with what Shipley calls, “romantic  ideas about being outside.”

The farm-to-table ethos typified by Portland’s restaurant scene is  flourishing across the state. It is particularly strong in the Willamette  Valley, the heart of mushroom country, where the food and wine culture has grown  substantially over the past few decades, and chefs increasingly emphasize  ingredients found at their doorstep.

Christopher Czarnecki is executive chef of the Joel Palmer House, a Dayton,  Ore., restaurant that specializes in wild mushrooms. Czarnecki, 32, says that  almost all of the mushrooms used in his kitchens are gathered by his father, a  retired chef, or by other family members and friends. Spreading the gospel of  mushrooms drives much of his cooking. “Most chefs don’t really put enough  emphasis on the unique flavor of all of the types of wild mushrooms,” he  complains. “Too often, they’re used as a side notes.”

Stephanie Pearl Kimmel, the owner and founding chef of Marché, in Eugene,  concurs. “It’s been a fabulous chanterelle season here, for example, which has  been cause for celebration both in the kitchen and in the dining room,” she  says. “Our chefs are able to purchase from a large number of foragers, our  servers get to learn about the connections between season, climate,  ecosystem—and then we share those connections with customers. The relationships  between what’s on the plate, the people who put it there and the landscape that  makes it possible are all stronger as a result.”

A recent meal at Marché drove home Kimmel’s words, as I savored an earthy  terrine made from locally raised pork and garnished with Oregon white truffles  that had nestled beneath a Douglas fir tree only days earlier.

Marché goes through about 40 pounds of wild mushrooms every week, and the  Joel Palmer House serves even more. But for recreational pickers, it’s not as  simple as wandering into the woods and scooping up mushrooms by the bushel. Most  mushroom picking in Oregon takes place on public lands, overseen by the U.S.  Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management, and with that comes a  complicated and often-contradictory tangle of regulations, permissions, and  limitations. In some forests, both commercial and recreational pickers are  required to purchase a permit, while other areas demand that pickers cut their  mushrooms in half before leaving the forest in order to prevent selling. Varying  restrictions are placed on the volume of mushrooms allowed, or the number of  days a year a person may forage.

Many of the regulations in the Pacific Northwest are “just ridiculous,” says  Leon Shernoff, editor of Mushroom: The Journal. “It’s certainly a legit  concern that you don’t want people coming in and hauling off 50 tons of forage  off of public lands, but at the same time I think they’ve gone very overboard in  regulating the noncommercial people.”

Fungi may be big business in Oregon, but foraging is also a competitive,  individual pursuit. The best spots are carefully guarded secrets; last October  an experienced picker was found dead from hypothermia and exposure after losing  her way while foraging alone in the Willamette National Forest. “Mushroomers are  an inherent category of missing subjects because they don’t take much survival  gear and they have their head down all of the time, so they tend to get  disoriented out there,” said John Miller, the search and rescue coordinator at  the Lane County Sheriff’s office. “I’ve had several pickers get lost more than  once.” Miller says that the vast majority of missing people are found, but it’s  not uncommon to see one or two fatalities every year. Statewide data shows that  search and rescue missions for lost mushroom pickers rose significantly in the  past year, from 18 missions in 2009 to at least 30 missions in 2010.

It was raining steadily on the Saturday morning that my husband and I set out  on our own attempt at mushroom chasing, driving along the coastal mountain range  to a spot friends had recommended in the Suislaw National Forest. Not taking any  chances, we were prepared with warm jackets, boots, waterproof matches and GPS.  We parked in a windy lot near the beach, hopped a highway barrier, crossed a  swollen creek, and trudged through the brush up a steep incline to some trees.  Under the tall conifers the undergrowth thinned, so that I found myself stepping  into rich loam and among lichen-covered branches, rather than the brambles and  bushes that had clustered closer to the shore.

We weren’t very hopeful—it was just our first forage, and at the very end of  the season. But once our eyes adjusted to the dim light of the forest, we  started seeing mushrooms everywhere, beneath our feet, under the gnarled roots  of the trees, just up a slope, half-hidden by leaves. I suddenly understood what  the woman at the lecture had meant about looking down. My eyes were glued to the  ground, constantly seeking, and I had to remind myself to look up to orient  myself, or to admire the sway of the trees towering over our heads. Given our  inexperience, we had decided to limit any actual harvesting to two easily  identifiable species, winter chanterelles and hedgehogs, but that didn’t stop us  from exclaiming over the diversity of fungi that were blooming all around our  boots. We unearthed delicate, violet-tinged mushrooms that were small and slick  with dew; heavier, soapy-smelling stems with thick, gilled caps; and one twisted  orange fungi that I guessed might be a late lobster, after consulting our pocket  identification guide.

Despite the fact that the highway was less than a mile away, we felt utterly  alone, and I quickly realized how easy it would be to get lost, especially if  searching in a more isolated area. Mushroom foraging is all about taking the  extra step, climbing over the fallen log, pressing on a little farther, peeking  into one more hollow, just in case you might be missing a treasure. No wonder  people wander off without realizing it. It was plain that other chasers had been  here before us, given some of the more trampled patches of earth, and the  occasional cluster of knifed stems that confronted us. After a couple of hours,  we found ourselves at the edge of a low cliff, overlooking the Pacific Ocean.  The sun was starting to set, and as we turned back to avoid the swift-falling  dusk, we glimpsed a flash of yellow tucked below a damp tree—our first  chanterelles.

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