Jack Czarnecki loves to take newbs out and demonstrate the wonderful world of mushrooms, edible or not. And who better to introduce the subject than this bacteriologist-cum-restaurateur who moved to Oregon specifically because he could hunt his favorite fungi 365 days a year?
Mushroom pros on the prowl.
He goes out looking for the ones he can take back to his son Chris, who is the owner and chef at the legendary Joel Palmer House in Dayton, a shrine to mycelium that Jack and his wife Heidi opened in 1996. But he also picks up oddball specimens, like the creamy butter-yellow individual we ran across on a recent foray for porcinis and butter boletes. He said he'd never seen this particular mushroom before, indicating it would be duly noted and identified when he got back home to Dundee.
Dick scores the first porcini.
He describes finding his earthy prey like a series of shots of pure dopamine to his brain. "There's the five-minute mushroom," he said of the effect, when he gets discouraged, of finding the object of his quest.
"Then there's the 10-minute mushroom," either a nice specimen or a small patch. But a mother lode of hidden gems or, even better, an as-yet-undiscovered location that the "commercials," the foragers who sell to buyers who supply stores and restaurants, haven't found? That's anything from a two-hour high to a fix that'll last all day.
I actually found some, too!
"We're going to take you through the back door," he said when he invited me along on a recent trip to search out early summer porcinis (Boletus Rex-veris) and butter boletes (Boletus regius) (top photo). Visions of Alice in Wonderland filled my head, but having been out with Jack before on a hunt for the Oregon white truffles that lace his Oregon white truffle oil, I knew it would be a day of tromping in the woods and an education in the where, what, when, why and how of species I'd never encountered before.
At seven in the morning I parked Chili in the parking lot of a large box store in Salem and Jack drove up in his Subaru wagon, dubbed the Truffle-mobile, and introduced me to his mushrooming pal Dick, a retired teacher and fellow fungus addict who'd be coming with us this trip. We drove up the Santiam Pass to a series of locations in the Cascades that will, of course, remain undisclosed except to say that they were at elevations of 4,500 to 5,000 feet. Any threats of excommunication (or even execution) weren't necessary, since Jack pilots the dizzying web of gravel and cinder forest roads, some more like paths, of the backwoods like the familiar he is.
Porcinis hide in plain sight, in singles and pairs.
In the decade-plus that he and Dick have been hunting together, their favorite spots have been given descriptive names like The Rocks, The Ditch and The Mound, and we were going to hit most of them and more that day. These guys are relentless, barely stopping to eat lunch or have a cup of coffee during a 14-hour-day on the hunt for their elusive prey.
Each stop had the same pattern: stop the car, pile out with bags and knives and walk to some previously productive patches, sometimes scrambling down banks or hiking up hillsides to check the area. At first there don't seem to be any mushrooms in sight, just twigs and branches and leaves scattered across the ground, but as my eyes adjust to the landscape I start seeing beyond the litter and notice the bumps and eruptions that indicate the (potential) presence of a fungus.
Porcinis: more mature, left; less mature, right.
In the case of the porcinis, we'd look for patches of disturbed needles or tilted "lids" of litter. Tip the lid off or brush aside the detritus and it might be a fern pushing its way into the light or…wait…the brown-ish amber cap of a mushroom. Haha! Then it's brushing aside more duff and, using my pocket knife, slicing it off at the bottom of the stem.
The smaller, less mature porcinis have more firm, dome-shaped caps with white, spongy-looking undersides, rather than the gilled mushrooms like button and portobello I'm familiar with from supermarkets. The caps of more mature porcinis grow broader and flatten out, the undersides getting a yellow tinge. Eventually the edges of the caps start curling up, the whole mushroom gets soft and spongy and the underside can become greenish-yellow and quite buggy.
Up to that past-its-prime point, however, in the second stage where the cape and stem are firm and the underside is yellow, the underside can be separated from the main body, which is used in sautés or duxelles. Jack mentioned that some people will dry the yellow undersides and crush it into powder, using it to bump up the mushroom flavor of recipes.
As with most hunting expeditions, there were many hours of searching interrupted by moments of excitement. The hours between were filled with stories of a particularly nice find from a previous trip, the time that Dick came back from a search to find a footprint he'd left in the dirt an hour earlier had sprouted a fully formed mushroom, or the trip where the very road we were on had sprouted a fine patch of mushrooms.
Half the haul, about 12 pounds.
After harvesting a big basket of porcinis, it was time to move on to the butter boletes, also known as royal bolete or red-capped butter bolete, a mushroom I'd never heard of. In its earlier stages it lurks underground in a perfectly edible state, and you'd never know it was there except for a handy, if fatal (for it), flaw. It tends to grow in patches, so a suspicious hump or crack in the dirt or litter on the ground might reveal a slightly more mature cousin, which results in a thorough search of the ground within a foot or so. At one point I found myself standing frozen on a particular spot, feeling like I could be missing a mother lode, thinking, "They're right under my feet!"
The sun was setting and, 30 pounds of mushrooms richer than we started out that morning, the two mushroom maestros were thinking it might be time to head home. And here, at last, is one location I can mention that won't get me in trouble: on the way home from (mumble mumble), I was informed it is long-standing tradition to stop in Mill City for pizza at Giovanni's Mountain Pizza. Really good, hand-thrown pizza with mega-toppings and lots of microbrews by the bottle, this place is a small town, way-under-the-radar cafe that, according to Jack and Dick, also has nice calzone, spaghetti and lasagne. It's a perfect way to toast a successful day getting 'shroomed.