Picking Tips for Aspiring Mushroom Hunters
After Jon Foro highlighted Langdon Cook's The Mushroom Hunters--which he called "a collection of delightful stories of a mycelial underground filled with eccentrics and obsessives who at first seem strange (and maybe even unsettling), but grow more charming by the page"--in our Big Fall Books Preview, our whole editorial team got an unusual invitation: Langdon was headed out to the south end of the Olympic Peninsula, hunting the first chanterelles of the season with two of the pro pickers profiled in his book. They'd be shadowed by a crew shooting a new PBS show called Food Forward. Would we like to come? This was like being asked if we wanted to step into the book for a day, to meet the characters and experience the hunt--an opportunity too rare to miss.
Meeting Doug and Jeff in real life was surreal and awesome. They were exactly as Lang had described them--maybe a little more charming due to the presence of a lady--and almost immediately they felt like friends. Once we got to the patch, Langdon and the guys got us picking on one side of the hill, while they filmed take after take for the intrepid PBS crew.
It was an epic day, culminating with Lang giving Doug and Jeff their own copies of the book. We felt privileged to be a part of it. A few days later, Doug sent Lang this review: "On commercial fishing boats, you're working all the time so your free time is precious. I've tossed a lot of books aside without finishing. This is a book I would have finished on the boat." Now that's high praise.
Here's what we learned from our day of picking with the pros.
What to Bring
Even when you've relished many a mushroom on the plate, it can feel risky to pick in the wild without a guide. If you can't go with seasoned pickers, get a pack-sized fungi guide for your region (in the Pacific Northwest, All That the Rain Promises and More has long been a go-to source) and note the tell-tale signs of any lookalikes you might encounter.
You'll need a knife--but a sharp one might not be the right choice. Jon has a small collection of folding pocket knives that uses for camping and backpacking, and he chose his sharpest. He would have been better off with a cheap steak knife, like Lang, Doug, and Jeff had. While his blade squeaked and struggled against the stems, they made quick, clean cuts. Also consider a sheath for your belt. It’s easy to imagine how stumbling on wet, bushy slopes with a naked blade could lead to a bad outcome.
You’ll need picking buckets--the 5-gallon kind, with a lid to keep out the rain. Lang had been vague, so Mari bought cute little ones. Luckily, they had an extra bucket to share, and Doug wiped it out well, giving us our first lesson: start clean.
And don't forget to pack a lunch.
What to Wear
Expect to get (as Lang says) “walking-through-a-car-wash wet,” especially if you're heading into the epicenter of North America’s chanterelle harvest, on the fringe of the Olympic rainforest. We drove down from Seattle through a hope-we’re-still-on-the-road downpour, and even under the dense evergreen canopy, the deluge comes through in thick drips.
Lang and Mari were decked in head-to-toe in rain gear—and very comfortable for it. But the pros don’t prioritize comfort. Doug and Jeff showed up in jeans, cotton, and flannel, clothing apparently designed to soak up water and suck the heat from your flesh. Doug explained: Mushrooming, especially in the rain, is a dirty business. He uses his cotton hoodie to wipe the dirt and needles from mushroom caps (not to mention hands and knives) before he drops them in his bucket. Try that with a slick rain shell, and you'll be wanting cotton. Just bring a change of clothes for later.
Lace up some burly boots. One of our biggest surprises--even after reading about the wild terrain--was how consciously we had to focus on finding and keeping our footing. The second-growth Douglas fir forests favored by chanterelles have steep, uneven ridges and folds, and the spongy duff is so thick in places, you feel like your foot just punched through a snowdrift. Rain-slicked logs and blackberry vines can trip and roll you. Many of the professional pickers—including Doug—are former loggers, to whom navigating rough woods is second nature; others are Southeast Asian refugees who survived in jungles with far greater hazards (like armed militants) before turning their foraging skills to our fungi. Whatever your experience level, you’re going to need footwear with solid tread. Just take care not to stomp the chanties.
How to Get There
Whether you’re following a tip or your own instincts for good fungi habitat, know you’ll have to go far beyond the main roads; the easy patches get trampled and picked out. If you’re going to make any kind of haul (for profit or fun), you’re going to have to go adventuring. One of the reasons so many loggers made the transition to mushroom picking is that they knew the prime spots through years of working the forests—and many of those patches are accessible only through logging roads and other ad hoc access points. Expect to drive through mud, around stumps, and over fallen trees and strapping saplings.
When you can’t drive any further without fear of rupturing a vital vehicular organ, wade into the woods. If you’re in the right kind of place, any footpath you stumble across will have been made by a mushroom hunter, or some other woodland animal. But once you start picking, the trail is largely irrelevant--just do your best to avoid trampling plants and fungi.
This is when it pays to know your trees and the mushrooms who love them. Each mushroom species has their preferred growing environments, and those often include symbiotic relationships with certain trees. Much of the Olympic Peninsula has been logged (and re-logged), and the inheritors of much of the land are Douglas firs—the perfect growing hosts for chanterelles. So while you're dog-earring your mushroom guidebook, bone up on your trees, too. Know your pines from your spruce, and what might be hiding underneath their respective needles.
How to Pick
Recalling the buy-stand scenes in the book, we already knew that the pros pick clean. Dirt on a mushroom stays on a mushroom, especially in the gills. That puts you on the bad side of potential buyers, who are already professionally grumpy from their competitive, low-margin market. The first trick to picking clean is picking dry—rain will cause dirt and forest detritus to stick to your 'shrooms. If you can’t pick dry (and mushroom season often follows rain), try to lift each chanty out of the duff with minimal disturbance, and get it in the bucket under your lid.
You'll also want to pick fast. Honestly, it’s incredible that anyone could do this for a living. In the two hours or so we spent hunting chanties, we probably picked three pounds between us. At the $2 per pound we’d get at a buying station, we were better off eating them. Given the time and gas it takes to get to premium patches, a professional mushroom picker is already staring at a deficit. But in the same afternoon, Doug and Jeff managed to pick 60 pounds, even while being stopped and directed by the camera crew. Uninhibited, they might have pulled 200 pounds or more, which is both amazing and barely adequate, financially.
Another conundrum is picking for size vs. quality. While larger “flowers” obviously weigh more, the smaller “buttons” will fetch more at market. The guys seemed mildly impressed by the volume of buttons in our bucket, and we imagined that Jeremy Faber, founder of Foraged & Found Edibles and one of the primary characters in The Mushroom Hunters, would have graded them favorably.
When you get home, dry any damp fungi on newspaper or paper towels overnight, and whatever doesn’t fall off will be more easily brushed away.
What to Cook
If you’re not trying to pick for a living, here’s the real reason to go: mushrooms you pick yourself taste more delicious than anything you’ll find at the store. Chanterelles will last for a week in the fridge, but the aroma—a piney apricot—is most intoxicating that first night, so if you have everything ready to make Langdon Cook’s Creamy Chanterelle Pasta, it will likely be one of your life's great meals.
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter
4 slices (1/4 pound) thick, quality bacon, diced (or the equivalent of pancetta)
1 or 2 shallots, finely chopped
1 pound shaped pasta
1 pound fresh chanterelles (or the equivalent frozen)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 pint heavy cream (or less)
4 ounces garden peas, fresh or frozen
1/2 cup grated Parmesan, with more for the table
Preheat oven to 250 degrees. In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the butter over medium heat and the diced bacon. Do not drain fat.
As bacon begins to crisp, add shallots and cook until tender, a few minutes. Meanwhile, bring a pot of water to a boil and add pasta. Add chanterelles to skillet and cook several minutes, stirring occasionally, until they have released their water. Season with salt and pepper.
In a large glass or ceramic mixing bowl, add remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and half the cream. Place mixing bowl in warm oven. Slowly add remaining cream to skillet and simmer, continuing to stir occasionally while pasta cooks. When pasta is nearly done, add peas to chanterelle sauce.
Remove pasta from heat, drain, and pour into warmed mixing bowl. Mix in sauce along with grated Parmesan and serve immediately.
If you’re worried about all that cream and butter, open an extra bottle of red wine. Serves 4.
Langdon Cook writes about the fascinating characters who live at the intersection of food and nature. He's the author of Fat of the Land and The Mushroom Hunters, an Amazon Best Book of the Month pick. Follow him at his blog, Fat of the Land.