Mushroom foragers love thrill of the hunt
As autumn rains rinse the Pacific Northwest, it's wild mushroom time.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Today The Seattle Times launches "In Season," an occasional series about seasonal delights of nature in the Northwest. We'll explore, explain and share the pleasures of this unique place we call home.
SOMEWHERE EAST OF SNOQUALMIE PASS — When rain soaks into the ground, sweet and cool, and mist slinks low across the land, that's when the time is right.
Autumn rains are the starting gun for wild mushroom foragers, searching out secret troves of delectables.
Any damp stretch of weather usually finds Lynn Phillips and Patrice Benson readying their mushrooming baskets. A recent misty day found the two headed out before first light to cross Snoqualmie Pass to a reliable, favorite spot — precise locations are a closely guarded secret — one of dozens of mushroom hot spots that fill a regionwide map in their heads.
As the cold comes on and frost bites in, they chase mushrooms to lower elevations, heading farther west and south, finally bottoming out in the South Sound.
Theirs is a foray into a world of Lilliputian delights with Dr. Seuss names: slippery cap, witch's butter, cow's nose, chicken of the woods, flames of the forest, hawk's wing.
Of course some varieties are "better kicked than picked," as the mushroomers' saying goes, and not for nothing does Phillips attend a survivors' dinner each March. "Every mushroom is edible once," she likes to say.
Residents of Seattle, Phillips and Benson both have been members of the Puget Sound Mycological Society since long before eating local was cool. Benson is the club's president and knows her mushrooms with the scientific exactitude of the biologist she is.
But for any forager, mushrooming is an intimate relationship with the land, a knowing when the right weather pattern and combination of timing, moisture, elevation, soil and tree types will align for a full basket. The secret ingredient, of course, is the primal thrill of the hunt.
After some road recon, looking for likely spots, Benson and Phillips find a gleam of white nudging up from the forest duff by the side of the road. They ditch their car and grab their gear.
The two usually split up as they hunt — hence the whistle, compass and walkie-talkie each carries. Within minutes comes the crackled announcement over Phillips' walkie-talkie, alerting her that Benson has scored. "Matsi," she says — shorthand for matsutake, a prized edible mushroom. Then, even better: "Shiro," she calls, her voice excited as she yells out the term for a fairy ring of 'shrooms.
Phillips follows Benson's voice to a clearing under Douglas firs near a dancing stream. The damp earth, fragrant with fallen leaves and rain, is thickly studded with matsutakes. Some already have poked through a carpet of vine-maple leaves. Others await discovery beneath telltale mush humps: the raised lumps of soil pressed up by the bounty beneath.
Like magicians, Benson and Phillips pull matsutakes one after another out of the dark soil.
The mushrooms are softer than suede, with a texture somewhere between skin and velvet, and have a signature spicy scent. Firm, immaculate and with tight gills, into the baskets they go.
Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of fungi attached to the roots of trees in the forest. As with apples hanging from a tree, it does no harm to pick them — as long as the underground organism, called a mycelium, is not damaged by a rake or other harsh harvest method.
The fungi live in a symbiotic relationship with the tree roots, each providing nutrients needed by the other.
Benson said it was at first the free-food aspect of mushrooming that drew her to the woods. But over time the attraction became deeper.
"There's the time in the car with your friends on the way there," Benson said. "It's cheaper than therapy."
And then there are the picnics. Packing a cast-iron skillet in the back of the car, and a soy-lemon dipping sauce with a twist of orange just right for matsutakes, Benson and Phillips come prepared. Midday brings a campsite feast, with Benson raising a great cloud of fragrant steam from the skillet as she chunks matsutakes into melting butter. With gourmet treats — including homegrown Asian pears and quince leather — to round out the meal, a day in the woods with them is no trail-mix trek.
But they're no slackers, either. The two usually keep at it until dark, even road hunting on the way out. At the peak of the season, they are out mushrooming at least once a week, watching the leaves change as fall advances, and chasing the freezing level lower into the watershed until it's time to put away their baskets until spring.
Mushrooming for Phillips is the perfect seasonal delight on the shoulder between hiking and skiing. "It's the thing that will get me out in the woods," she said, "even when the weather is too crummy for anything else."
Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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