Thursday, November 18, 2010

Wet and Wild

My friend Donald Kotler loves to grow vegetables for his café, Toast, in southeast Portland. What he can't grow himself, he'll sometimes contract with local farmers to grow for him or buy from farmers directly.

He's also a forager extraordinaire, and when he mentioned going out to hunt down some wily late-season chanterelles, it was all I could do not to drop to my knees and plead to go along. And, a couple of weeks later, head out we did on what turned out to be a drenchingly wet November day, with temperatures plummeting into the mid-40s.

One of the rosy-pink mystery mushrooms.

Since most of his favorite spots are three to four hours away and we both had to get back to town by mid-afternoon, Donald decided to head up the Gorge on the Washington side and see if we could find some likely locations. Turning off the highway past Camas, we drove up a forest road, pulling off to investigate a couple of spots that Donald said "didn't feel right" and then eventually parking at a gated side road that looked like it hadn't had much traffic of late.

Another mystery mushroom.

Mushroom hunting is akin to other types of hunting in that you basically charge off into the underbrush, over fallen trees and through thickets. The best places don't feature groomed trails or signage ("Mushroom picking 100 yards ahead" signs are rare), and you have to be prepared to climb steep hillsides, slide down muddy embankments or bushwhack your way through the underbrush that grows up out of the Doug fir duff where you'll find your prey.

The other key, particularly if you're like me and your sense of direction goes out the proverbial window when you're in the woods, is to go with someone who possesses an unerring sense of direction, i.e. who knows where they left the car. The only other gear required is a bag for your booty, should you find any, and a pocket knife for cutting the mushrooms, rather than yanking them up and potentially damaging the root that will sprout new mushrooms. An experienced guide with a well-thumbed guidebook is also valuable.

The haul, cleaned and drying out a bit.

We began on one side of the road and found several kinds of mushrooms, some small and brown (Donald calls them LBMs for Little Brown Mushrooms), others amber-colored and some with a rosey pink glow on top and white gills underneath. Like the other trips I've made to hunt fungi, at first I find myself overwhelmed by the sheer complexity of what I'm looking at, with fallen leaves, moss, fir needles and shrubbery competing for my attention. But then I'll see one mushroom, then a few more, and eventually I'm able to pick out the ones I want from the visual noise of the forest floor.

After crossing the road, we came on several patches of chanterelles that were, like us by this point, a bit soggy from the rain. But the thrill of finding first one, then another, then a few together was thrilling enough to keep us looking until we had four or so pounds between us, at which point we reluctantly agreed it was time to head back. I'm just hoping I'll remember where it was when the season rolls around next year, but even if I can't I'll know better where to look if I stumble across a place that, in Donald's words, feels right.

Find directions on how to roast mushrooms for freezing or use in other recipes like Wild Mushrooms with Pasta and White Wine Sauce, Mushroom Risotto with Truffle Shavings, Springwater Farm Cream of Mushroom Soup and Mushroom Quiche.

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