Thursday, November 6, 2014

Pining for the Woods

Hard to believe, but I barely got out this fall. Work, kids, the newish book (which, by the way, was a finalist for the Washington State Book Award), plus a new, new book to research—all this and more conspired to keep me on the road for much of August, September, and October.

Back around Labor Day, it looked like we might have another stellar fall mushroom season this year, on par with 2013, and I was kicking myself for the overbooked calendar. August rainstorms—never a given in the Northwest despite what many people might think—did their magic, and the porcini started popping in the mountains. But then it dried out and stayed dry for weeks. Evidence was all over the woods of abortive fruitings.

In early October, right before the annual NAMA conference, held near Mount Rainier this year (for non-mushroom geeks, that's the North American Mycological Association), I got to spend a day in the woods with my pal Jonathan Frank, who was in town for the conference. I like to refer to Jonathan as Captain Aquatic Mushroom Man. He's the guy who's been studying the newly discovered underwater mushroom, Psathyrella aquatica, the first of its kind, which was found happily fruiting on the bottom of Oregon's Rogue River.

Jonathan is also doing DNA work on our western U.S. boletes, including the butter boletes and the beautiful brick red-capped Rocky Mountain kings. Sadly, we got nearly skunked in one of my favorite and usually reliable porcini patches (sheesh, was it ever dry through most of September and early October…and then it got really really wet). We did however find more blue chanterelles (Polyozellus multiplex, pictured above left) than I've ever seen, which I happen to think is just a so-so edible, and a beautiful patch of spreader hedgehogs (Hydnum repandum, at right and below), a very delicious species. Once again, these hedgies were among the beargrass, which is a connection that I think bears further study, so to speak.

At home, we ate the hedgehogs for weeks because, you know, they're about the hardiest of all wild edible mushrooms when it comes to just leaving 'em in the fridge. No problemo. We ate hedgehogs in wonderful autumn comfort dishes like pot roast, minestrone, chicken pot pie, and so on. But because I'm boycotting food photography at the moment, I've got nothing to show you. (Seriously, it's so nice to simply eat and not worry about the light conditions or getting a good shot of whatever freakin' mushroom dish you're cooking.)

Later in October I took food writer/photographer Aran Goyoaga on a mushroom hunt, which she wrote about for Condé Nast Traveler (one of her lovely photos graces the top of this post). Again, we found plenty of hedgehogs in a beautiful stand of old-growth hemlock in the mountains, plus good quantities of yellowfoot (Craterellus tubaeformis), a few admirable boletes (formerly Boletus mirabilis, now Boletellus mirabilis), and some bear's head (Hericium abietis). I've noticed that there's tons of Hericium in the woods this year, and even more honey mushrooms. Wonder what that's all about. I  don't bother with the latter, though I'm told they pickle well. The bear's head was aces in a seafood gumbo, pairing very nicely with the Dungeness crab that it mimicked somewhat in its sautéed form and smoked Andouille sausage.

On another one of my few trip into the woods, I guided a couple who had won my services at an auction for Seattle Tilth. We arrived at one of my regular chanterelle patches from the past decade only to find it clearcut. This is a hazard that any serious chanterelle hunter will face at some point in the Pacific Northwest, likely more than once. Those golden chanties are mycorrhizal with young Douglas fir—but the timber companies are even more enamored of doghair Doug fir. And if you live in the State of Washington, well, the powers that be will tell you that the only way to fund the educations of our school children is to whack 'em down on state-owned land. It's crazy stuff like that that sends me running for the woods in the first place, so I hope to do more sanity maintenance in the not-too-distant future.

Photo at top by Aran Goyoaga; fourth photo from top by Jonathan Frank.