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Russell Wangersky: The mysterious world of mushroom foragers

A fascination and penchant for edible mushrooms lures foragers out into the woods.
A fascination and penchant for edible mushrooms lures foragers out into the woods.

There is a strange canker on the wild rose hips this year, a bright orange fungus that catches the eye as you walk along the late-August woods paths. A few early fall adapters amongst the leaves, too, bright orange and already fallen, so that there are other oranges among the brown of the spruce understory.

Russell Wangersky

All the better to hide the small buttons and the unfurled boxer’s cabbage ears of the chanterelle mushrooms, in amongst the leaf litter and the tuff of fallen spruce needles.

Dusky boletes, equally tasty but harder to discern friend from foe, rise from the ground like fat-based, fist-sized atomic weapons clouds. Most often, they rise and then fall without garnering human interest, though the slugs knit slimy pathways across their caps. The inky caps? They rise in their candled chorus, bunched tight together, and all fall into black soup at almost the same time — some varieties are fine fare cooked in melted butter, but they all seem to rise and fall untouched.

The poison mushrooms are out there, too, the death-dealing amanitas, the slender toadstools, standing tall and untouchable.

The chanterelles, though, that’s another story.

It’s a quiet mushroom war out there, a take-no-prisoners, leave-no-stone-unturned turf battle under the spruce and fir canopy.

Downtown St. John’s restaurants have hiked the purchase price to $12 a pound or more, and grocery stores no longer can afford to buy them and still find customers to resell them to. There are professional pickers here now, people who forage for the healthy return the mushrooms can bring, and theirs is no hobby.

Out along the mushroom trails, the competition is ruthless.

The gentleman’s agreement that you don’t pick over 50 per cent of the rising orange crop is honoured in the breach, and the six or more patches I know well are harvested to bare ground only a day or two after the small, hard nubs appear. Few reach full size: it’s a case of deciding how late you can leave a patch to mature lest someone else gets there first.

There are dark deeds in the mushroom world.

I’ve seen fallen trees hauled across pathways to hide the route in to mushroom grounds, branches hauled over nascent patches to keep them from curious eyes, everything short of booby traps set to keep other mushroom hunters at bay. Fake paths that peter away to nothing, turns carefully camouflaged — sometimes, you wonder if you should be careful for trip-wires.

Chanterelles are sometimes called the gold standard of wild mushrooms, and not just because of their distinctive colour. Much is made of their faint peach or apricot smell — it’s not a note I catch, though an opened container of the mushrooms throws out a distinctive smell indeed. The mushrooms are the fruit, if you like: they spring from underground threadlike webs of mycelium, and as long as the mycelium survives, the chanterelles will come back. Too much foot traffic can break the web; too much harvesting reduces the chances the mushrooms have to spread to new places.

A pound of mushrooms, fried in butter, will reduce quickly to a far smaller amount, their internal water cast out, the remaining flesh chewy and rich. But a pound of chanterelles cooked alongside frying chicken breasts? It has the kind of wholesome feralness that moose stew has, a flavour that makes you feel as if something your body has been missing has suddenly arrived — something wild that you didn’t realize until then that you were missing.

On Facebook postings right now, you see the spoils of the amateur victors: broad swathes of orange mushrooms or small full bins, and you read postings about how much walking and bushwhacking was done to find them. You don’t ever hear about just where exactly the fungus champions made their score — you won’t hear it from me, either.

I don’t see the pros, the professional purveyors of the ruthless fungus hunt, but I know they are out there. I see their footprints, hear voices sometimes. They move under the trees like mist, working their fungal clear-cuts.

It’s a valuable thing, a chanterelle patch that no one else knows about, that, if treated with some discretion, will come back year after year.

To find something for the table from the wild? That feeling is a valuable thing, too.

 

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 35 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at rwanger@thetelegram.com — Twitter: @wangersky.

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