Forage and feast safely

October… when the lure of gold hidden in the forested slopes of our local mountains and valleys draws the forager out of their comfortable abode. But, like other forms of gold fever, dangers are present when in pursuit of the fruiting bodies of the mycelium species, otherwise known as funghi. Whether it’s chanterelles or some other mushroom variety you fancy, ’tis the season to pick edible wild mushrooms on Vancouver Island.

Even before your eyes spy one of these delectable morsels gleaming on the forest floor, you can run into serious difficulties. Falling into a hollow or crevasse obscured by bracken is a common occurrence. Spotting one chanterelle usually leads to another, and another, and… oh, look over there! Excitement builds and, before you know it, you’re lost.

Barry Blair, one of Arrowsmith Search and Rescue’s volunteers, has some sage advice for anyone planning to head into the hills to pick mushrooms. Ron Nigut, a supplier of wild mushrooms to locals, restaurants and specialty stores for 27 years, offers some tips about where and how to forage safely. We add a sprinkling of information from BC Forests about where wild mushrooms can legally be picked in BC, and where not. Finally, if you don’t want to forage for your feast yourself, we serve up some suggestions about where you can buy or feast on chanterelles and other seasonal wild mushrooms in Qualicum Beach now.

The ten+ essentials for mushroom pickers – Barry Blair

Over the last two weeks, Arrowsmith Search and Rescue (SAR) has participated in two searches for mushroom pickers on the West Coast, one near Tofino, and the other in the Cook Creek area. Both “call-outs” ended successfully.

Golden rules for venturing into the wilderness:

1. Tell someone where you are going and what time you plan on being home.

2. Don’t go alone.

3. If you become lost, just stop and stay where you are.

In one of the searches, the individual kept moving. The search lasted approximately two full days, and involved four SAR groups from around the Island as well as police resources. In the second search the person stayed in one spot and called 911 immediately. This search lasted only the better part of an afternoon.

Here are some suggestions to help you get home safely so that you can enjoy the fruits of your day’s labour.

First, tell someone where you are going and what time you plan on being home.

Secondly, don’t go alone. If something happens to you, you have a friend to rely on.

Thirdly, if you do find yourself in unfamiliar territory simply stay put.

Besides the containers for collecting your favourite fungi, those people who enjoy heading outdoors to pick their own should also think about taking with them a few items just in case things turn sour.

The “ten+ essentials” to carry with you will fit in a small backpack leaving lots of room for the important stuff.  They include but are not limited to:  proper clothing and footwear, a fully charged cell phone, a whistle, a fire making kit, food and water, a small first-aid / blister kit, emergency shelter, knife, sun and bug protection, and a flashlight.

Once again, if you find yourself in trouble, stay put and don’t hesitate to call 911 right away.

Enjoy the outdoors – oh, and the mushrooms.

Tips from a seasoned wild mushroom forager – Ron Nigut

“It’s been a great year for mushrooms,” says QB’s Ron Nigut, or “Funghi Ron” as his business card reads. “Some [chanterelles] even came up in July and August.” Ron credits the rains we had during the summer, followed by warm weather. “Chanterelles often produce several flushes through a season.”

Like plants, mushrooms need moisture to start, he says. “Two years ago, we had a dry summer. The rains didn’t come until October, too late.” That was a poor year for chanterelles but, Ron says, it resulted in a bumper crop of pine mushrooms. “Pine mushrooms will be coming on soon,” he says. Some years, pine mushrooms can be found at higher elevations as early as August. Ron has to go as far afield as Sayward occasionally to find a good supply of wild mushrooms, but this year he says there are plenty close to home.

Back in the 1980s, the wild mushroom trade took off in BC. Pine mushrooms were such a sought-after commodity that they sold for as much as $280 per pound — “that’s the price the picker was paid, not the retail price,” says Ron. These mushrooms were whisked onto a plane in Vancouver, and delivered to restaurant tables in Tokyo within 24 hours. Ron also supplied Vancouver restaurants for many years, recalling the many exhausting trips he would take by ferry over and back to Vancouver after a heavy harvest. Prices have come down considerably since those heady days, but the product is no less sought after. In fact, interest in edible mushrooms has sky-rocketed in recent years.

Despite having 27 years’ experience, Ron remains cautious and safety-conscious during every foray into the woods, often made with his partner Susan. The big concern is getting lost. “If I’m going into an area that I don’t know well,” he says, “I look for structures to follow. A creek, a ravine, a hill — chanterelles love creek beds. If you can hear the creek, you know you’re all right.” Failing that, in flat areas, Ron leaves a “bread-crumb trail” of sorts. Ron finds flat areas can be most deceptive and unsettling. “You can end up going in circles without knowing it,” he says. So whenever he doesn’t have some sort of “structure” to help him gauge his location, Ron leaves a marker every fifty or one hundred feet, either tape on the trees or a bag. “You always want to be able to look up and see that last marker or bag,” he says, before moving further on.

“You have to be in decent shape,” Ron tells me, to do this for a living. “The really good spots are deep in the woods, often a vertical hike of several miles. “That’s hiking with a 35-pound backpack,” he says. Wildlife has never been a problem for Ron. The few bears he has encountered over the years “are more scared of me than me of them.” Deer are also fairly scarce, but he notices their presence. “Deer eat mushrooms. They especially love pines.” He says you can see where deer have scraped away at the forest floor, searching for mushrooms. I ask Ron what one last piece of advice he would have for aspiring pickers and he says don’t pick mushrooms unless you are certain what they are. Go with someone who is knowledgeable and experienced until you learn how to reliably recognize the edible ones from the ones you aren’t sure about.

Ron supplies mushrooms to local stores such as Naked Naturals and Tom’s in Bowser — golden chanterelles, pale pines, brick-red lobster mushrooms, cauliflower mushrooms, King boletes, and hedgehogs. “Hedgehogs are rare,” he says, but sought after by mushroom connoisseurs.

What’s Ron’s favourite way to cook chanterelles? “Dry fry,” he says. Once the moisture cooks out of the mushrooms, he adds butter, garlic, whipping cream and Pernod, seasons with salt and pepper and pours the sauce over pasta. Ron says you can leave the Pernod out, but…

If you crave wild mushrooms but aren’t about to head into the woods yourself, you can get them direct from Ron Nigut of Edible Wild Mushrooms 250.757.9130. Or, check at QB’s Farmers Market on Saturday mornings.