Saturday, June 4, 2016

The Mushroom Hunters

On the Trail of an Underground America

The bland title and cover don't do this book justice. Instead, pay attention to the subtitle, then imagine picking mushrooms with Hunter S. Thompson. Yes, guns are involved.

According to the author, mushroom hunting for profit is so secretive it shares "certain similarities with drug smuggling."

That's because there's a lot of money to be made. Some pickers go armed, and the harvesting is often done illegally in restricted areas, or in backwoods America where "your average passing motorist with a flat tire would hesitate to knock on any of the doors."


The author tags along with a couple of expert foragers who are quirky but likeable. One is a former sous-chef who supplies wild produce directly to restaurants in New York and on the West Coast. Since pickers want cash he makes frequent trips to banks, but without the slightest concern over his appearance. When setting up a new account on a buying trip to Montana, he looks homeless or deranged -- unshaven, dishevelled, hands black with dirt. "Hard work was his mantra."

The other person is a former logger and commercial fisherman who's been diagnosed with Parkinson's and is awaiting a new set of teeth. He's served in the military, spent time in drug rehab, had two dozen concussions, and drives a car called the Blue Pig. He manages without a phone, bank account, or (after three divorces) a wife. He does not use maps or GPS, yet has never gotten lost. He smokes pot through a mushroom, and once earned $6000 in two days picking matsutake.

The supporting cast is large enough to populate a novel, and includes chefs, restauranteurs, mycological geeks, meth-heads, and hardworking immigrants whose "lives had been full of tumult and misfortune." One of them says, "I don't pick for money, I pick for survival."


Inherently mysterious, they take strange shapes that can be deadly, delicious, or hallucinogenic. Evolutionarily (says the author) they're closer to animals than plants, which perhaps explains common names like oyster, lobster, hedgehog, hawkwing, shaggy mane, bear's head, man-on-horseback, chicken-of-the-woods.

The adventurous author goes truffling in Oregon, picks hedgehogs in Washington, hunts for black trumpets and yellow chantarelles in northern California, and sets himself the goal of picking 100 pounds of morels in a single day in the Yukon.


How about squid-ink pasta, oxtail ragu, stinging nettle soup, eider-poached oysters, Pinot-Noir-braised pork belly, and "pickled quail eggs, bone marrow, and green juniper berries."

My favourite: seven-minute duck eggs with goat-shit oil and wild purslane.


Dried porcini have an earthiness that is quite frankly mind-blowing to the newcomer. Put your nose in a bag of dried porcini and inhale -- and be prepared to suck in the woods and the duff and the very dirt where the mushrooms live. It's a big aroma: toasty, terrestrial, rugged.

I could hear the muffled voices of two men, then the sharp ringing of at least thirty rounds of automatic gunfire unloaded into the woods mere yards from my car.

Zimmerman ran his hands through the chantarelles and chortled like a pirate sifting his pile of golden booty.



There aren't any, so here are three of my own.

To the left is a morel growing in Yoho National Park in BC at an altitude of 2000m. I remember picking these guys as a kid growing up on the prairies. The other two are from the Annapolis Valley at the opposite end of the country: hen-of-the-woods (not to be confused with chicken-of-the-woods) fruiting at the base of an oak tree, and a chaga mushroom (looking like a lump of burnt wood) picked by a friend of my wife. It grows on birch trees and can be used to make a medicinal "tea."