Go wild for fall mushrooms
Ron Thirkell admits that, at $16 a pound, the wild mushrooms he is about to purchase are expensive. “But it is nice to indulge occasionally,” says the Kitsilano resident as he takes another white chanterelle from the Wild Products Network table at the Granville Island Public Market. “The flavour is so much better than regular [grocery-store-bought button] mushrooms,” Thirkell continues. “They’re fabulous straight up on pasta or in a salad.”
His wife, Karen, concurs. “One of our favourite recipes—chanterelles with poached pears in a wine reduction—comes from an old cookbook by John Bishop,” she says. “It’s a fantastic fall dish, especially with roast pork.”
Andrea Carlson, the executive chef at Bishop’s (2183 West 4th Avenue), uses a lot of wild mushrooms when they’re in season. But as the Thirkells know, you don’t need to be a professional chef to coax flavour from the tasty wild edibles. “It is really important to clean them properly, however,” Carlson says in a phone interview. She uses a gentle brush such as one made for that purpose—available at most cookware stores—gently brushing them under cool running water. She also advises slicing the mushrooms into uniform pieces to ensure even cooking, especially for denser varieties like the lobster mushroom.
Carlson encourages people to use a simple method of cooking. “The best results come from a technique that doesn’t destroy the mushrooms’ aroma or flavour,” she says. A gentle sauté with butter works wonders, especially with the addition of herbs like thyme or rosemary, which complement the earthiness of the fungus. “I also like to poach wild mushrooms in butter,” Carlson says. “This is a particularly good method for lobster mushrooms [so-named for their colour]. The butter takes on the orange-gold colour and the aroma of the mushrooms.”
Carlson and the Thirkells aren’t the only locals who’ve developed a fondness for wild fungi. In fact, Louis Lesosky, who was manning the Wild Products table the day I visited, has noticed a huge increase in interest in wild mushrooms over the past couple of years. “Europeans have been picking wild mushrooms for generations, especially in the eastern countries,” says Lesosky, who himself has been picking commercially in various parts of the province for about 15 years. “Interestingly, a lot of English people grew up thinking they were poison. It’s true that some mushrooms are, but a lot aren’t. It’s all about educating yourself, and more people are doing just that. With the growing interest in eating locally, more people are willing to try wild food from the region,” he adds. “Now we can’t pick enough to supply demand.”
In a phone interview, Brenton King, owner of Pacific Rim Mushrooms, says he’s also noticed a rise in demand for wild mushrooms. “We’ve seen an increase between 10 and 20 percent in each of the last two years,” says King of the traffic at his stalls at the Trout Lake and West End farmers markets. “People want fresh, and the media is helping to promote the fact that locally grown produce is fresher than stuff that is flown in from overseas or trucked across the country.”
All told, Lesosky will carry some 50 varieties of the wild plants over the course of a year. Morels are found in the spring in B.C. Little grows in the summer due to the hotter, drier weather. Even so, fried chicken mushrooms (which have a texture similar to that of the more familiar oyster mushroom) and chicken-of-the-woods mushrooms have started to appear now, as have lobster mushrooms and white and yellow chanterelles.
“This could be an incredible year for wild mushrooms,” he says. “That is, if we get some rain [during the fall, when the largest variety of species is available].” He holds out a white chanterelle so I can feel how dry it is, even though it was picked in the last 24 hours.
James Town, sales manager for Mikuni Wild Harvest, a supplier of wild produce to restaurants and stores across North America and overseas, says that B.C. is an ideal place to harvest wild mushrooms, due to its mild climate. “Most times of the year, there is something that is available fresh,” Town says. “Pines [pine mushrooms] were growing locally [from Vancouver Island to the Interior] earlier in the year. Now we’re getting them from eastern B.C.” Interestingly, he adds that the recent forest fires in eastern B.C., around Kelowna, and in the Pemberton/Lillooet area could result in a bumper crop of morels in the late spring of next year, as that fungus is one of the first to appear as a forest begins to reestablish itself after a fire.
A word of caution: only buy wild mushrooms from vendors you trust, whether you make your purchase at a farmers market or in a store. “A lot of mushrooms look alike,” Town says, “and some of those look-alikes are poisonous.” For that reason, he advises those wishing to forage for themselves to join local mycological groups, the Audubon Society, or naturalist organizations that have experts willing to guide novice foragers.
If you happen to pick or purchase more mushrooms than you can use within a couple of days, Lesosky recommends drying, rather than freezing, the surplus. “Thawed mushrooms have to be used immediately, or they turn to mush.”