Friday, October 11, 2019

Getting 'Shroomed: On the Mountain with Oregon's First Family of Foraging


"That's why we call it mushroom hunting, not mushroom picking."
- Jack Czarnecki on the rigors of foraging for mushrooms

The Czarnecki family is well on its way to becoming a mushroom foraging dynasty, with fungi running in their veins the way filaments of mycelia run under the forest floor. In 2012 I was privileged to meet Jack Czarnecki when I interviewed him for a story about Oregon truffles, then just beginning to be recognized as equals to their legendary cousins in France and Italy. Jack, the third generation of this restaurant family, migrated from his native Pennsylvania to Oregon so he could hunt mushrooms year round. Sensing my curiosity about his craft, he subsequently invited me to join him and his compatriots to climb in the legendary Trufflemobile on a hunt for their wiley prey.

Jack at Joe's Donut Shop on a previous hunt.

Jack, retired from restaurateuring as well as active mushroom hunting, has passed on the family's traditions to his sons Chris and Stefan. Chris, a chef, took over ownership of the Joel Palmer House in Dayton, assiduously maintaining its mushroom-centric focus while adding a more contemporary twist to its preparations. Stefan (top photo), who owns wine touring company Black Tie Tours, had announced he was taking a day away from that business to head up to Mt. Hood to hunt mushrooms for the restaurant, and I inquired if he might be able to squeeze in one additional passenger.

Dick Nelson, mushroom maven.

As with his father before him, we arranged to meet at Joe's Donuts in Sandy, a requisite stop for foragers to pay obeisance to the mountain gods for a successful hunt and a dandy place to get sustenance for what was sure to be a long day of clambering through brush and up and down hillsides. As we set out for the mountain, the shotgun position in the front seat next to Stefan was taken by his dad's longtime mushroom-hunting buddy Dick Nelson, as familiar with the spiderweb of rutted tracks leading to the best spots as was Jack. Much discussion ensued as to which spots might yield the best results, and a general plan was formulated.

White chanterelle emerging.

Our primary goal was to hunt matsutake mushrooms, prized for their distinctive spicy scent as well as their flavorful culinary properties. The "matsies" were just beginning to appear, pushing their way up out of the duff of the forest floor, often no more than a bump in the undergrowth or, at best, a glimpse of white through the needles. Second were porcinis, also considered a seasonal delicacy. Last but not least on the list were white chanterelles, cousins of the more ubiquitous gold-colored variety, and much more abundant than either the matsutakes or porcinis.

An early dusting of snow.

A dusting of snow covered the trees as we headed down the highway past Government Camp, turning off the main road to one of the secret spots euphemistically named for a distinctive feature like The Rocks or The Dock. A few favorite spots yielded a smattering of the targeted fungi, but it was our last stop, an anonymous wooded slope that I'd visited with Jack on a previous trip, that ended up yielding a small bonanza of matsutakes and a plethora of whites.

Dick finds the prized "matsi" of the day.

Fortunately I was with Dick, who would point with his walking stick—actually a mop handle he'd borrowed from his utility closet at home—at a slight mounded lump on the ground, suggesting I should brush aside some needles in case it might disguise a matsutake just popping up. Which it invariably would. These mushrooms need to be dug in their entirety rather than cut off at the base like the chanterelles, to reveal dusty, dry earth clinging to the base that, along with their distinctive aroma, is a telltale sign.

All told we gathered more than thirty pounds of mushrooms in five hours, most of which would be going to the Chris at the restaurant, but I was generously allowed to bring a few pounds home to roast and freeze for future dishes where I could relive the smell of the woods on our hunt, the bracing nip in the mountain air, and Dick's charming Mona Lisa smile.

Read more about this iconic Oregon family, including links to my articles on Oregon truffles and mushrooms. Top photo courtesy Stefan Czarnecki.

No comments: