Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Into the Woods with Jack

I heard my e-mail inbox ping with an incoming message.

The subject line: "Sharoooooms!!!" It was from one of my favorite people, Jack Czarnecki, Oregon's master of fungi and maker of truffle oil. He was inviting me along to forage mushrooms with two of his most eagle-eyed compatriots, Dick, whom I'd met on a previous expedition, and Chris, who, like Dick, is a retired teacher. I've been on a few expeditions with Jack gathering these denizens of the forest deep, and it is always an educational, entertaining and thoroughly exhausting experience, since he moves like a bear up and down hills, tirelessly seeking his quarry.

First stop, Joe's Donuts.

Our quest this time was for matsutake mushrooms, highly sought-after for their distinctly spicy, sweet aroma. Jack said he loves them for the persistence of their flavor when cooked, unlike many mushrooms that tend to lose the intensity of their flavor when combined with other ingredients. We'd also be picking up white chanterelles, which flush in the same locations as the matsutakes. Both would be featured on upcoming menus at the Joel Palmer House, where Jack's son Chris has taken the helm, allowing his father to 'shroom at will.

Find the five matsutakes.

Since we were heading up on the flanks of Mt. Hood to various hunting grounds that he and his pals had explored before, we met up at Joe's Donut Shop in Sandy, a requisite stop to ask Wy'east's blessing for the hunt and to plot the day's traverse of the mountain. After consuming coffee and several of Joe's namesake pastries (I particularly liked the applesauce, though they've now got pumpkin on the list), we headed out, turning off onto a series of Forest Service roads to the first in a series of stops.

Out in the open.

Though there were jokes about blindfolds, Jack knows I'm completely befuddled once we get off the main highway. Plus the fact that he knows the narrow, rutted roads like the back of his hand and drives them accordingly. In the car he described the matsutake and its habits like it was a member of the family, complete with tales of chance meetings and great hunts past.

But once we stopped the car and got out, he was all business. He handed me a long-bladed knife, scoffing at the Swiss Army knife I'd brought as insufficient to dig out the deeply rooted matsutake. Since I'd never foraged for this particular mushroom, and the fact that it can at first look like a number of deadly amanita mushrooms, he took pains to show me how to properly identify it.

The telltale dusty root.

The matsutake, like many fungi that grow in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, are found in areas where there is deep, moist duff from the fir trees. Sometimes they're sticking up from the surface, but most often you'll spot one barely emerging from under a hat of fir needles, or even still beneath the surface, only given away by an oddly placed hump on the forest floor. The good news is, they tend to erupt in clumps, so once you see one breaking the surface it's good to scan the area for any cracks or clumps that indicate other matsus nearby.

Jack spotted some almost instantly, and said it was important to get the whole mushroom out, root and all. That's because the most important indicator of the matsutake is at the root end, where it will have an ashy, grey dust clinging to it. The second indicator is the sharply defined gills under the cap, which emit the distinctly spicy, sweet aroma this mushroom is known for.

A happy man.

After this lesson, Jack let me go off on my own, though I always kept in sight of one of the veteran foragers, not only because they had walkie-talkies, but because they always knew how to get back to the car, a crucial skill when you're wandering around in the wilderness. Fortified by Heidi's forager's lunch (huge cold-cut, cheese and onion on rye sandwiches and her signature giant chocolate chip cookies), and after making several stops that filled up the back of the Truffle-Mobile, Jack's trusty Subaru wagon, we headed back to town.

As big as my head!

The guys were particularly impressed by my find of not just one, but three huge cauliflower mushrooms (ahem), in addition to a not-too-shabby-for-a-beginner matsutake and chanterelle take. Summing up over the required dinner at SE Powell's Om Seafood—mushroomers are apparently big on talismans in the form of restaurants—Jack said that in all his years in Oregon, going on two decades now, this may be the best year he's seen for mushrooms of all sorts. It was theorized to be some combination of warm-but-not-too-hot days followed by rain but not-too-much rain (it's like talking to vineyard people) that caused the crazy flush of all kinds of hot mycorrhizal action.

Whatever the reason, it was a thrilling day, not only because of the amount of mushrooms taken, but because I got to be one of Jack's select crew, a compliment of the highest order. Thanks, Jack!

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