Fungi Run

Hunting for matsutake mushrooms with chef Shane Ryan.

At 9 a.m. sharp, Shane Ryan pulls up to my place in his well-worn red Pathfinder. Wearing a baseball cap, a plaid flannel jacket, work pants, and boots, he tells me he’s nursing a hangover from late-night drinking with his brothers-in-law. It’s his day off from his job as chef at Matt’s in the Market, and he’s here to take me to Whidbey Island, where he will reveal to me—a local food writer, no less—his secret mushroom trail.

It’s late in the season for chanterelles; one co-worker came back from a weekend hike reporting that he’d come across only rotted ones. I ask Shane if it’s likely we’ll find any still edible. “We’ll see,” he says. “I found bags full the other weekend. This season has been amazing.” Seeing as we had such a dry summer, I wonder why.

Langdon Cook, mushroom-hunter extraordinaire and author of The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America, will later explain to me that the key to a good harvest is getting rain at the right time. His theory (though he’s quick to point out that there are many theories, and mushrooms ultimately “are a mystery”): Though July and most of August were dry, there were some heavy, soaking rainstorms in late August. “This moisture kicked into high gear a fruiting of fall mountain porcini that was already underway, and also insured a long chanterelle season. On top of that, September was noticeably cool and wet—the sort of weather only a mushroom could love,” he says.

When the ferry from Mukilteo arrives, we make our way toward Langley. After a few turns, we’re on a back road of dirt and stone. I say its name three times in my head, hoping I’ll remember it for future trips. Finally we park off-road on the edge of a forest. There’s a light drizzle. I take a pee behind a tree, Shane has a smoke, and then we head down a trail. There are markers in Latin (names I also try to commit to memory).

The woods are a lovely, loamy mess of moss, pine needles, fallen logs, and dense branches and brambles. Suddenly we’re surrounded by massive mushrooms—big, brown portobello-looking things that Shane assures me are not edible. We see patches of long, skinny-stemmed mushrooms that are the whitest of whites: “Matsutake teases,” Shane calls them.

We come to a clearing aglow with bright orangey-red clusters that look like they’ve come from the bottom of the ocean rather than the forest floor. These, I quickly find out, are lobster mushrooms. Shane picks one up and pronounces it “too wet.” Indeed, some are waterlogged, and crumble in your hands. But plenty don’t. I fill a bag with ones that are still firm and dry. He tells me that these mushrooms are in fact parasites that grow on the russula mushroom, covering it so completely as to render the host unidentifiable. As Cook writes: “Though such fiery color is often nature’s way of saying DO NOT TOUCH, the lobster mushroom, like its boiled crustacean namesake, is a sublime taste of the wild—and like marine lobsters, the mushroom’s flesh is succulent, even silky in texture when properly sautéed, and faintly evocative of the sea.” Cook tells me he likes to eat them in a risotto mixed with real Maine lobster—a playful East Coast/West Coast preparation.

We see plenty of un-colonized russulas too, white and pink ones—not poisonous, but without any taste, according to Shane. Each footstep seems to lead to yet another crop of funky fungi: yellow “coral” mushrooms that look like they’ve been pulled from a reef; tomato-red-topped species that resemble the homes of Smurfs; big, shiny, black, scallop-shaped ’shrooms glistening in the rain, clinging to logs in a way that reminds me of mussels attached to pilings.

Then Shane moves off the path toward a tree trunk. “I found one!” he yells. It’s a matsutake, the mushroom he’s been after all season—rare and highly sought-after, particularly in Japan where the local species can command thousands of dollars per kilo. Those in the States, Shane tells me, can go for as much as $90 a pound. “Smell it,” he says. “They smell like cinnamon.” I take a big whiff, and am amazed at how much they actually do. Next to that one are two more. They look very similar to ordinary button mushrooms; the top looks like a penis, Shane says. Yeah, that’s pretty much the best way to describe it.

Shane gets out his special mushroom-foraging paring knife, complete with a brush to whisk off dirt. “French,” he declares. He slices a tiny portion off the stem to check for worms and deems it clean. It’s a Two, he tells me. In the world of matsutakes, there is a clear hierarchy: A One is a mushroom whose gills have yet to open (meaning it’s the freshest, most sought-after). A Two’s gills are partially opened; a Three’s gills are entirely exposed. All are keepers.

Now that he’s found one, we’re done with the lobsters. I’ve even forgotten about chanterelles, which, though beguiling in taste, are in fact the easiest to find of the top edible wilds, particularly in the Douglas fir–rich Pacific Northwest. I make my own way off the trail, toward tall pines and firs.

Hunkered down right next to the base of a trunk are two more matsutakes. They’re covered with forest duff (one of their key traits), which I lightly pull off. These mushrooms are so deeply rooted that only the bulbous caps are visible. I take my knife and dig around them, carefully pulling them up with their stems intact. When they gently release, it’s a quiet thrill. I turn them over to examine the gills. None are exposed.

“I have a One!” I shout crazily. Shane comes to look. Now he’s really on a mission. He finds several more, and offers me one. I find a few more too. The next patch he comes across, he doesn’t share. Even in the amateur world of mushroom hunting, the game is on. We’re on the same team, yet we’re not.

“These matsutakes always seem to be near the base of a tree,” I pronounce. Shane tells me they’re nicknamed pine mushrooms because they often grow near pine trees. Touché. Other mushrooms favor firs or cedars. Understanding these survival strategies—of which there are many more—is key for a serious mushroom hunter. Not technically a fruit or a plant, but the reproductive body of a fungus, mushrooms thrive by feeding off other things (as the lobster mushroom does), by recycling organic material from the soil, or by pairing with certain plants to share nutrients. Part of a wild mushroom’s allure is its unclassifiable nature.

Shane’s cell phone rings. His brother-in-law Sieb, who owns Prima Bistro on the island, is out in the woods near us. He’s also gathering hedgehogs. We’ve yet to come across these, identifiable by the little spikes under the golden mushroom cap, where gills would normally be. While the season for chanterelles and matsutakes is winding down, hedgehogs, black trumpets, and yellow-footed chanterelles are in full swing and will go into winter. “It really never ends,” Shane says. Cook will later echo that sentiment, and add that the yellow-foots are great in a Christmas stuffing.

But, maddeningly, mysteriously, a particularly plentiful spot of any kind might be devoid the following year. Another survival mechanism of mushrooms, perhaps. The forager’s fixation, for sure.

Another call comes: Sieb confirms he’s still loading up on hedgehogs. “How can we not be finding them?” I ask Shane desperately.

“Ahh, he may just be a little deeper in than us.” We find a few chanterelles that aren’t rotten—golden, with ridges (rather than gills) that run down the stem. At this point, I’ve filled an entire shopping bag with mushrooms, and it’s only been a little over an hour.

We make a few clumsy circles until we find our way back to the car. Next to the red Pathfinder is another hulking red vehicle with stickers of guns and skulls on the back: Sieb.

We drive to Langley to have lunch at Prima Bistro, Sieb’s unassuming French-inspired restaurant. Hidden atop a market and mercantile shop, it has imposing, wide-open views of the bay. We sit at the bar and order one of the best meals I’ve had in months: veal sweetbreads in an apricot gastrique and a dish of poached eggs with chunks of foraged lobster mushrooms, croutons, and pancetta that they smoke in their own tiny meat locker. The lobster mushrooms are meaty and have a very subtle seafood-like flavor—that fifth flavor that the Japanese call umami and which translates to “pleasant savory taste.” Shane has some wickedly good-looking bone marrow on toast.

While we’re sitting there shooting the shit, Sieb walks in. He’s tall, with long, dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, gold hoops in each ear, and tats all over his arm. He’s holding several bags of mushrooms, which he’ll be serving in the restaurant, of course. He sits down and orders us all glasses of Fernet Branca on ice—a clear indication I’m in the company of chefs.

Satiated by the meal and the mushroom extravaganza, Shane and I are quieter on our trip back. He tells me it’s his night off, and he’s going to prepare a matsutake salad for his wife when she gets home from work. Sliced super-thin, he adds. These mushrooms are too special to be cooked. I get mine home, wash them lightly with wet paper towels, and place them all over my kitchen counter. It’s pretty surreal-looking.

My phone buzzes with a text message. It’s Shane. “Make sure to smell all your matsutakes to be positive that they are them.”

One by one I pick up my pounds of matsutakes. Only one doesn’t exude cinnamon. Shit. It’s a precious One. But I can’t take a chance. I toss it.

I head to my computer and pull up a map of Whidbey. The name of the road I repeated three times comes to me. I think I zero in on the turn. Though I’ll never print the location, I know I’m going back there myself this weekend. Maybe I’ll run into Shane, maybe Sieb. But more important, maybe I’ll meet up with more matsutakes, or finally find those hedgehogs.

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