All the rain promises…

white chanterelles

– a brief review of the mushroom foraging season 2009

It’s been quite moist around Duncan these past few days, the rain falling on the hillsides has saturated our local watershed, filling up the streams and sprouting lakes where streets use to run. Several months ago I remember wistfully thinking that we needed more rain. The moss in the forests around my farm was getting scorched in the dry and hot September weather. The mushroom harvest had not really started and that made me a little nervous for my favourite pastime – fungi foraging. I guess this was a case of be careful what you ask for – you may get it.

Here we are in late November and at last count we had 21 rain days out of 23 days this month! The moss is looking very healthy now and the past mushroom season has been one of the strongest in recent memory. It all started back in July when I found my first yellow chanterelle (Cantharellus formosa) in the woods around my place. That was a very encouraging sign – and was turned into a lovely pasta dish with rosemary, garlic, olive oil and Parmesan cheese. This soon turned out to be a premature start for the season, we went into near drought conditions for the next few months until about the last week in September. This year, the early fall rain showers translated into a bumper crop of white chanterelles (cantharellus subalbidus). On several occasions we went out and collected 10-15 lbs in less than a couple of hours foraging. These were destined for chowders, tomato sauces and pickles, now slowly being doled out of our pantry. Oddly enough, in the Cowichan there was a distinct lack of yellow chanterelles, in a normal year they are one of the dominant mushrooms in the forest – not this year.

We did notice a huge fruiting of short stemmed russulas (russula brevipes), these on their own are quite unremarkable mushrooms that have one redeeming quality – they are attacked by a parasitic fungus (hypomyces) and converted in the prized lobster mushroom (hypomyces lactifuorum) . They sprouted by the literal thousands in the hills of the valley, a truly remarkable fruiting that continues late into the fall (another rare occurrence).

October brought the biggest surprise of the season, an immense bounty of boletus mushrooms including the prized Porcini (boletus edulis). We have hunted high and low for these delicacies in the past, this year we found them scattered all around the trails and paths of the region. In mid October, a visit to our farm by noted mycologist David Arora shed some light on the fickle nature of the porcini. David explained the porcini is an edge-species in the world of fungi, they like to fruit in the zones that receive a little dappled sunlight and pop up on the edges of forest along paths, streams, meadows and road ways. We also found that the presence of the fly agaric (amanita muscaria) are an indicator of the correct conditions for porcini. The mushrooms are also closely associated with the roots of certain trees (in our area the Douglas Fir) – all of these tips combined with perfect growing conditions to put us in porcini heaven.

Finally in mid October, the nights cooled, the moon waned and the matsutake or pine mushrooms (Tricholoma magnivelare) began to fruit in the local hills. This is always one of my favourite times of the year. The discovery of the first pine and the deep inhaling of the heady aroma is always a thrilling sensation. Our first pines where whisked back to the kitchen and thinly sliced into a steaming pot of duck broth, garden greens and fresh udon noodles – much happy slurping ensued.

Around the first of November, the welcoming of the rainy season began to wear out its welcome. We started to wish the rain would stop. The-rain-did-not-stop. Just when we thought the sky could not shed more tears along came the Pineapple Express. Warm moisture laden winds from the mid-pacific dumped mind-numbing amounts of moisture on our heads. The pines initially flourish and we picked baskets of wonderful specimens – but eventually too much rain caused many of the mushrooms to become water saturated and rot underground. This is terribly disappointing to a forager who has slogged hundreds of meters up wet hillsides – only to be greeted with soggy rotting pine button and worm-riddled mature specimens.

After the torrential rains we have now settled into a steady drizzle. Proving that every cloud can have a silver lining, we have recently started to see a new crop of pine buttons return to the hills. Adding to our elation, we’ve found a few specimens of one of our most aromatic fungi, the caulifower fungus (Sparassis crispa). Despite the name, this fungi looks more like a large ball of creamy white ribbons with an aroma that is forest, floral and spice in a crisp and delicious package. My favourite preparation is a cream of squash soup with handfuls of cauliflower fungus thrown in just before serving.

If we can only fight that urge to curl up with the dog in front of the woodstove, the mushroom season looks poised to make a run deep into December. Who knows, perhaps we’ll have (freshly foraged) pine mushroom stuffed turkey this Christmas.

About Bill Jones

Chef, Author and Forager

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