Friday, October 29, 2010

The Delivery

In my ongoing effort to be a commercial mushroom gadfly—or maybe just a fly in the ointment—I hung out with the fellas at Foraged and Found Edibles the other day while they packed up a couple dozen restaurant shipments and made deliveries.

It was a relatively quiet day. When I arrived at the warehouse (the owner's basement), Jonathan and Shane were busy sorting and cleaning mushrooms. Order by order, they packed chanterelles, porcini, and other mushrooms into cardboard flats and weighed them. A fan in the corner dried porcini and watercress soaked in a washbasin.

An hour later the packing was done and it was time to make deliveries. Jeremy, owner of Foraged and Found (pictured with a stack of baskets) owns a fleet of three Astro vans for the purpose, all of them used and cheap. He beats these vans like rented mules on the logging roads of the Pacific Northwest, but not before squeezing a couple hundred thousand miles out of each one, averaging more than a 100,000 miles a year.

Jonathan would cover east side restaurants for this delivery; Shane had the city. I hopped in with Jonathan, a CIA (NYC) graduate and former sous chef. Our first stop was his old employer, the Herbfarm in Woodinville, Washington, one of the Northwest's most celebrated restaurants. I had the good fortune of eating there last spring with my food blog pals Hank Shaw, Holly Heyser, and Matt Wright. The Herbfarm doesn't serve lunch, so the atmosphere was relaxed. Owner Ron Zimmerman came out to greet us (pictured taking possession of his beloved fungi at top of post). Right now he's doing his popular annual Mycologist's Dream menu and his order was both the biggest and most diverse, including chanterelles, yellowfoots, matsutake, both #1 and #2 porcini, a cauliflower mushroom, saffron milkcaps, hawkswings, and man-on-horseback mushrooms. Ron picked through the mushrooms with a knowing hand. We made some friendly chitchat and then headed off.

Next was Cafe Juanita, a perennial favorite on the north shore of Lake Washington in Kirkland. Chef-owner Holly Smith won a James Beard Award in 2008 and just seeing her face light up at the sight of a 10-pound bag of wild watercress was worth the trip. She teased out a strand and munched it approvingly.

Our last stop of the day put these first two deliveries in stark relief. The cook looked stressed out and annoyed at our presence for some reason that was never articulated. "How's it going?" Jonathan said, trying to be friendly. "Busy!" the cook snapped. I have two children under 11, so I know "acting out" when I see it. It's not a pretty sight in an adult. The cook slapped his dishrag on the table and grabbed Jonathan's receipt book, which he slammed against the wall before signing for the goods, then handed it back without a word. He kicked his new box of watercress to one side and had someone take away the mushrooms.

So much for fresh local ingredients. Some people are in the wrong line of work. Jonathan told me one of the hardest parts of his job is trying to educate clients who don't get the grading system. Even well known and long-standing restaurants don't always understand that #1 porcini and matsutake buttons will be varying sizes, not always cute and petit. "It's not as if mushrooms are grown like tomatoes in a mold," he said. "They're wild."

That's the point, but sometimes people want their wild ingredients to behave like conventional supermarket produce, domesticated and submissive. For years now a variety of cranks and schemers have tried to figure out the secrets of ectomycorrhizal fungi in order to grow them like a crop. Let's hope they fail.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Grilled Matsutake

Matsutake, which means "pine mushroom" in Japanese, isn't among my favorite of the wild edible mushrooms, but it's fun to forage and I enjoy preparing it in traditional Japanese recipes.

Look for matsutake under conifers in well-drained, even sandy soils. Like porcini, it can be found near the ocean beaches of the Northwest and also in the mountains, especially in areas where volcanic soils are present. Matsutake fruits in other regions of North America including the woods of Maine and Ontario.

Though the Japanese prefer the mushroom in its button stage with gills entirely covered by the veil, I find that it becomes even more aromatic as the cap begins to open.

It has a singular aroma. David Arora of Mushrooms Demystified fame refers to it as "a provocative compromise between 'red hots' and dirty socks." In my opinion this spicy cinnamon-like flavor marries with Eastern culinary ingredients such as soy, rice vinegar, shaoxing wine, and so on, better than Western dairy ingredients such butter, cream, and cheese.

Probably my favorite preparation is Matsutake Sukiyaki. Gohan is another way to showcase this unique tasting mushroom. But if you want to experience the flavor in the most dressed down way, try grilling it. Slice the mushroom and grill over low to medium heat until light golden. It should be slightly crispy on the outside with a moist, meaty inside. A dipping sauce of equal portions soy sauce and rice vinegar completes this simple and flavorful dish.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Ukrainian Connection

You might not see these people around town. They stick together and avoid attracting attention. But in your local mushroom patch you're sure to find them. Eastern Europeans, that is. Poles and Czechs, Russians and Ukrainians, many of them recent immigrants in the years following the dissolution of the Soviet bloc. They have a long tradition of scouring the woods of their homelands for edible fungi.

Mushrooms are often thought of as basically nutrient-free. This is not the case. Fungi can boast a number of important nutrients, including protein, and while a meal of mushrooms isn't equivalent to a steak dinner, to an Old World peasant not that long ago it might have been the difference between making it through the winter and starvation.

No wonder Eastern European fungal folkways have been handed down over the centuries—and they're alive and well in North America.

There's a mushroom patch that I frequent in the mountains east of Seattle. Actually, it's more of a huckleberry patch, but sometimes I'll pick mushrooms when I'm there. Every October I see the Eastern Europeans parked in the many turnouts along the forest road that leads to it. They're in search of boletes, especially Boletus edulis, which they call the "white mushroom" as well as a number of other species in that family that most recreational mushroom hunters rarely consider for the table. They vacuum up the many slippery jacks and scaber stalks of the forest.

Last year I happened on a troop of them in the bush and I wish I had been able to get some clandestine photos. They looked as though they'd just stepped off the set of a Hollywood movie about gypsies, wearing handmade clothes—the women in ankle-length skirts and babushkas in the middle of the wilderness—and calling to each other through the woods in an indecipherable tongue. As soon as they saw me they turned tail, as if engaged in some sort of furtive, illegal activity. Many of the Eastern Europeans, for reasons that are obvious to even the most casual student of history, are reluctant to talk to strangers and view anyone outside their cohort as a potential authority figure best to be avoided.

Just the other day I was more lucky. I found a group of Ukrainians working a patch who were willing to talk. Already they had a couple five-gallon buckets filled with slippery jacks, red caps, and the odd king bolete. One of the two women spoke decent English and explained that they were from a village outside Kiev. She wouldn't submit to a photo but her picking partner agreed to hold up what they called a "brown cap." They differentiated between three different types of Leccinum: red caps, brown caps, and black caps. This is a notoriously difficult genus to key out at the species level, and there is some debate even about the edibility of these mushrooms in general since they are known to cause illness on occasion, with one poisoning case in particular that has made the rounds recently.

The other prevalent genus, Suillus, which includes slippery jacks and jills, is ubiquitous on the forest floor but as the common name suggests, often slimy. The Ukrainians said they peeled the cap and then boiled the mushrooms in salted water before pickling or canning. A dash of lemon juice, they said, made all the difference. These are seriously labor-intensive mushrooms and I've never done much with them. Some people will dry and powder various kinds of Suillus for use in soups and stews.

Also that day I met a man from Moscow named Eugene. He was picking with his wife and had a basket filled with similar species (shown at the top of this post). Eugene said he sliced and salted the mushrooms before preserving them. We exchanged email addresses, a level of communication that initially surprised me, but when I tried to send photos to Eugene the next day my message bounced.

I don't mean to sound like a cultural tourist, but I think it's cool that an activity like mushroom hunting can introduce you to a diverse group of people from around the world. I'm hoping that I can get to know a few of these folks and learn their methods of mushroom preparation. But asking questions in the bush doesn't always get you far. You can understand why people hailing from the former Soviet bloc might be suspicious. The Ukrainians were surprised that I was alone.

"Not good to be alone in woods," one of them said to me. As if putting an exclamation point on the statement, a quick volley of gunfire echoed through the hills. Just target practice, I said. They looked at me with raised eyebrows. "Yes, maybe."

Monday, October 11, 2010

Steelhead Camp

My friend Beedle has been regaling me with tales of steelhead camp for as long as I can remember. A couple weeks ago I finally got to see it for myself.
After an 18-hour drive from Seattle, plus a few hours of winks  in Prince George, we pulled into camp on the Kispiox River, tributary to the Skeena, near the small community of New Hazelton, British Columbia, and just a few clicks above the Kispiox Indian village. Most of the regulars were already in attendance, their tents pitched on a grassy bar above the river. There was a dentist and a former police chief, a fisheries biologist and a dot-com veteran, a furniture recycler and a professional chef, among others, most of them united by membership in the Northwest Atlantic Salmon Fly Guild. Everyone had another life to return to, but for now they were pilgrims paying their respects at steelhead mecca.
Or maybe pleading at the wailing wall of anadromous fish. Even on the storied waters of the Skeena River system, where the steelhead are all wild and in relatively good numbers compared to their beleaguered cousins in Washington, Oregon, and California, the fishing ain't easy, and I would discover this first-hand.

Once the fish are in the system and they've run the gauntlet of ocean fisheries, bycatch, and in-river First Nations nets, the hopeful angler must worry above all about weather. This is north country and the weather changes its mind like the American electorate in a recession. 

The Kispiox River looks more like a trout stream, with tannin-colored water, rocky ledges, and golden-hued poplars along its bank, yet it is the final destination for some of the biggest steelhead in the world, with record-breaking catches dating back to the 1950s, when reports of huge fish first leaked out to the angling public. Perhaps more enticing, this is one of the few rivers where a greaseliner can have a legitimate shot at a twenty-plus pound steelhead on a dry or "damp" fly, and for many of the anglers with whom I shared camp, the idea of using any other line besides a floating line was anathema.
But I would be casting my floating line on the Skeena for starters. The Kispiox, it turned out, was as low as it had ever been in 70 years of record-keeping. The river was gin clear and the fish ultra-spooky. So we headed for the Skeena, and in doing so encountered some of the classic double-speak (or no-speak) that is typical of the tight-lipped steelheader's world. A conversation in camp might go like this:

"So where are you fishing tomorrow?"

Pause. "Skeena."

"Skeena, huh? Well, it's a little river."

Little like the Columbia. But steelheaders are notoriously secretive and your best bet is to get them liquored up in camp, which I did the next night while serving my Morel Cream Sauce over steaks, thus prying a few flies out of one of our experienced camp mates. Small, drab, sparsely dressed, the flies he gave me looked more like trout flies. The next day on the Skeena I used one of them and discovered what all the fuss was about. I had on my floating line and a 12-foot leader tapered to 10-pound tippet. The tippet worried me but word was you needed long leaders and light lines to hook these fish in such low water conditions. I tied on one of my new flies and started swinging down through a tasty looking run of broken pocket water and boulders, casting a long line and swinging my fly probably no more than an inch or so beneath the surface. Just behind a rock the fish took.

It was on before my brain registered the fact, leaping in the air in an electric vibrating blast, as if trying to sprout wings on the spot: a huge hen with pink shining cheeks. She crashed back into the pool, shards of water catching the light, and broke for the middle of the river. I watched the line fly off my reel, wondering if the drag was set right and whether I'd have a bird's nest on my hands in a second, and then, just before reaching my backing, she was gone. Poof, just like that. I reeled in to find the leader snapped at my tippet knot. My legs had the shakes.

Beedle also hooked into a nice Skeena hen, on a Thompson River Caddis fished in the film, and landed her after a good fight. The next day, with a light rain and the rivers rising, we fished the Kispiox, floating pontoons through some of the hallowed runs: the Potato Patch, Date Creek, the Powerline Hole, and the Gold Room. Below the Powerline Hole I landed a handsome buck (pictured at top).

It rained hard all night and we awoke to find...river out. All rivers out, from the Bulkley to the Kispiox to the Copper. Even the Skeena itself was too brown to fish, and rumor had it that anglers on the Dean River to the south were being evacuated by helicopter.

When forces beyond your control get the upper hand and bully you around, you feel utterly helpless. When life goes sideways or kittywampus, you can curse your misfortune in words that any steelheader will understand. River out!

So we spent a few days exploring the Skeena watershed and tuning into the local mushroom picking scene, which was going through its own river out due to the months-long drought and which no brief rain pulse was going to remedy anytime soon.

Amazingly, the Kispiox ("first to go out, last to come in") actually came back into shape just before our departure, and I got one more crack at a colorful buck, which took me into my backing to the far side of the river and cartwheeled out of the water like a hen before I finally brought it to hand.

As with any pursuit, the detours and back roads are just as noteworthy as the destination. The time in camp telling stories and lies is the real gravy. And we were fortunate to have an old guard steelhead legend among us—his name will be familiar to serious steelheaders, Harry Lemire—sharing his tales of the old days (he quit fishing the Kispiox in '71 because it was too crowded!),  demonstrating fly-tying techniques, and generally being a gem of a guy with a quick wit and generous spirit.

You might wonder what all this has to do with wild foods and foraging. After all, steelhead on the Skeena system are strictly catch-and-release, as they should be to protect a resource that's on the ropes throughout most of its range. My answer to that is that the forager's life is ultimately about connecting with the natural world. Yes, food is a big part of that connection. Yet if you held a gun to my head and had me choose between eating wild foods or merely finding them, I would pick the latter. I love to eat, and learning my way around the kitchen will no doubt be an ongoing education, but it is the time in the outdoors that I cherish above all.

And so these great fish were returned to the river to complete their lifecycle—and perhaps to give some other lucky angler the tug of a lifetime.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Mushroom Camp

In late September, with my friend Beedle (of Fat of the Land fame) at the wheel, I rode shotgun on a long drive up to northwest British Columbia to go steelheading (more on that in a future post). We camped on the banks of the Kispiox, tributary to the Skeena, and sure enough the first big rainstorm of the season blew out the entire system just a few days after our arrival. So much for fishing.

Instead we took advantage of river out and explored the enormous country that is backwoods B.C., with an eye out for the mushroom trade that is such an integral part of this region.

In the hamlet of Kitwanga, just off highway 37 (only 700 miles to Alaska!), we found a buyer named Ave. He had his buy station—a simple wall tent with a wood stove—set up on a friend's gravel lot just outside of town. As we pulled in Ave was in the middle of telling two First Nations men how they might go about finding mushrooms to sell. Otherwise the place looked deserted. It's been a poor year for the matsutake harvest in B.C., with a record drought for most of the summer and early fall. We were told the Kispiox was as as low as it had been since river levels were first recorded, 70 years ago.

Meanwhile, with ample September rains, Oregon and Washington are enjoying a good year (recreational hunters might call it spectacular, while commercial hunters are happy that it's finally underway after a slow start in August) and the matsutake harvest in places like Crescent Lake is bountiful enough that prices paid to pickers in Canada are as low as $3/lb. Ave figured he'd have a bunch of pickers pulling in later in the afternoon with mushrooms to sell but he wasn't too enthusiastic about the season so far. In a few weeks he planned to head south to Vancouver Island to buy chanterelles, and then on to southern Oregon and northern California for the black trumpet pick come winter.

After lunch at the excellent Kitwanga Diner, we went north on 37 to ... don't blink or you'll miss it ... Cranberry Junction, where an infamous ad hoc mushroom camp has existed for years. 

Known affectionately (or frighteningly, depending on your disposition) as "The Zoo," this place has hosted as many as 1,500 mushroom pickers during the go-go years when matsutake fetched exorbitant prices on the Japanese market and pickers stuffed their pockets with cash for mushrooms. Now, after several so-so harvests and prices in the tank, it was nearly a ghost town. We saw only a handful of campers who had erected various forms of habitation, from simple tarp-and-stringer tents to more elaborate school-bus shacks.

The only one around was Grace, who has run the mobile general store here for the last decade. Grace had never seen the camp so desolate and she didn't expect it to get any better with the recent rain. At $3 per pound, there's little incentive—even poverty, it would seem—for a picker to hump mushrooms out of the bush all day. Grace explained that expenses (e.g., gas, food, auto repairs) can be as much as $100 a day, meaning 50 pounds of matsutake hardly covers your overhead. And on a year like this, picking 100 pounds a day is only feasible for the most knowledgeable of pickers.

Grace's two football-sized dogs yapped away and she finally had to go back inside her trailer to nurse an illness. We were left alone in a nearly empty camp with a few indelible images: an outhouse in splinters on the ground, as if overrun by grizzlies; a burned out car that might have once been used as shelter more than transportation; a rusted and bullet-riddled trash-can spilling its refuse; a ruined tent slumping in the wind.

Images such as these might make you think about your next purchase of wild mushrooms at the local grocery store or farmers market. And by think I don't mean to suggest you not buy them, only that you consider the supply chain that brings us these wild delicacies. The other day I saw porcini advertised for $40/lb and chanterelles at $15/lb. Even birch boletes, not nearly as choice as king boletes, were commanding a hefty $30/lb price-tag.

I'm not sure what the answer is. An astute commenter on one of my earlier posts noted that the inequities in the wild mushroom business are no different than in any other industry in America; wherever you look, those on the lower rungs are compensated proportionately less than those on top, yet without those people there is no top. As a recreational hunter, I can tell you that the knowledge, physical ability, and sheer cojones required to harvest large quantities of wild mushrooms in the wilderness are substantial. As a consumer and restaurant patron, I can tell you that the costs of eating these delicacies are dear. And as a member of the human race, I can tell you there are other hidden societal costs of not valuing the skills that put these foods on our plates. What are those costs worth?