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Many mushroom hunters jealously guard the secrets of their hobby. Not James Nowak. He’s one of western Washington’s most willing teachers.
The amateur mycologist grew up in Mercer Island, but it’s his Polish heritage that got him hooked early on the hunt for wild fungi. It’s part of their family tradition.
“As long as I could remember walking, I can remember looking for mushrooms. And my father was so funny, he used to send me out as a little kid into the neighbor’s yard, because it looks so much better for some young kid going to pick the puffballs out of the yard than a grown man,” Nowak said.
How to find and identify edible puffballs is just one of the lessons he’ll teach clients he takes on mushroom tours through his company, Terra Fleurs. He says only eat puffballs from lawns that haven’t been treated with chemical fertilizers, and toss them if they aren’t pure white when you cut them open.
“If there’s any hint of brown or green when you slice them open, then throw’em out,” he said.
But if you find some good ones, he swears they make for a wonderfully unique eating experience.
“I like them. They have a nice crunchy texture on the outside, and the inside is sort of soft and marshmallowy, so they sort of pop in your mouth. And they have an almost minty flavor,” he said.
Puffballs aren’t the only mushrooms you can find in urban settings, says Nowak. Keep an eye out, and you might find any number of other species in public parks.
“I have my spots in the Arboretum where I find Blewit and prince mushrooms, for example,” he said.
But if you really want to find a wide variety, he recommends heading into larger forested parts of the Northwest outside the city. And he says nearby ski areas almost always deliver.
“Just walk along the edges of those slopes, and where you see blueberry and scrub, that’s where they like to grow—not in the deep forest, but along the edges,” he said.
Foraging for porcinis along the edge of ski slopes
Nowak ventures out to the edge of Alpental at the Summit at Snoqualmie to forage for Boletus edulis. He says the chunky white mushrooms, which are also known by the Italian name porcini or Steinpilz in German, are some of the most common this time of year and the safest to pick for the table.
Poke under patches of moss, and you might find them—some with caps as big as a foot wide. And this is an especially good year for porcinis, says Nowak.
“Last year, there wasn’t a single porcini to be had. I mean, I came up here, there wasn’t a single one coming. This year, it’s the complete opposite; bumper crop,” he said, adding the same is generally true for all wild mushrooms this fall. “All the weather patterns worked out. If we can just stave off a hard freeze for as long as possible, then the season should go on until probably into December.”
Nowak likens porcinis to baked dinner buns. They have brownish caps, and look “slightly baked,” he says. But their pale color can make them hard to spot.
One way to find them, says Nowak, is to look for the common Amanita mushrooms, which are easier to see because of their characteristic bright orange caps and white spots. Like most spotted mushrooms, they are poisonous, so you don’t want to collect them. But Nowak calls them an indicator species; their presence usually means there are porcinis growing nearby.
If you spot one that looks like a porcini, he advises pulling the entire mushroom out of the soil. A bulb at the bottom is a sign of toxicity. If there’s no bulb, another test is to score the sponge beneath the cap. If the flesh turns blue, it’s not edible. In his childhood years, Nowak says, he delighted in finding these hue-changing caps, which serve as a great canvas for writing messages.
Find a porcini that’s edible, and you’re in for a treat. Nowak likes to poach them in olive oil with “tons of garlic and salt,” can them in jars and keep them in his fridge. They also dry well, he says.
“Porcini go great with pork, red meat, you know, risotto, a lot of Italian cooking,” Nowak said.
Gypsy mushrooms not for beginners
Also growing in the grove are gypsy mushrooms, an edible variety with a wrinkled asymmetrical cap of a bluish haze. Nowak says the gypsies have an antiviral compound that’s believed to boost the immune system and fight the herpes virus. But he warns beginners should steer clear of gypsy mushrooms.
“It looks a lot like a lot of other mushrooms that you don’t want to make a mistake [of eating],” he said.
Nowak says all foragers should stick by one rule: “When in doubt, throw it out.”
“Never eat any mushroom unless you’re 110 percent perfectly sure that that’s what it is,” he said. “And it’s always good to have independent confirmation. Particularly if you’re a novice, you should have somebody else look at the mushrooms you’ve collected for the table, just to be certain.”
For those who want to delve deep into mushroom foraging, Nowak suggests they join the Puget Sound Mycological Society to learn more about different types of mushrooms and how to identify them.
Auggie, the truffle-hunting companion
Nowak’s foraging companion is his Roman water dog, Auggie, whose breed is known for its ability to sniff out truffles. Both white and black truffles are native to the Northwest and offer a winter crop for the year-round forager. But no matter what time of year, Auggie is always on the hunt. And when he starts digging away, Nowak knows there’s a truffle buried underneath.
“He just goes crazy until he gets to where the truffle is. And then if I don’t grab it from him, he will eat it,” he said. “I have retched many a truffles from his throat, pulling it out, you know, with the dog saliva and everything. He usually eats a few of’em and he usually stops.”
Some truffles are buried as deep as 12 inches in the ground, but Auggie can pinpoint them with incredible accuracy, says Nowak.
The magic of lobster mushrooms
Auggie trails along, sniffing here and there, as Nowak heads into deeper woods to forage for mushrooms that grow in richer soil.
Bushwacking near North Bend in the woods of Rattlesnake Lake Recreation Area, Nowak scans the dark soil on the forest floor. He’s looking for the telltale sign of lobster mushrooms: a pea-sized hint of red poking through the underbrush.
“Is this unbelievable?” he exclaims. “Oh my God, look at how big it is. Is that just too crazy?” The mushroom, he quips, is enough to feed “a family of five, for two days.”
There’s a magical quality to the way lobster mushrooms come to be, says Nowak. Lobsters are a parasitic mold that grows on a white host mushroom. Alone, the host mushroom is bland, but once it’s infected with the lobster mushroom’s spores, it turns into a “choice, delicious edible mushroom,” he says.
Lobster mushrooms are found in older forests, and have a nutty, earthy smell.
“It’s got a strong fish smell,” said Nowak. “So that first note is fish, and kind of finishes forest.”
Hunting for golden chanterelles
Unlike lobsters, which grow along the edge of the forest, chanterelles grow deep in the woods, on the forest ground beneath salal, ferns, and moss.
“Chanterelles only grow on the forest floor. So if you’re picking a mushroom on wood, it’s not a chanterelle,” said Nowak.
You can tell a chanterelle by its golden color. It should tear open like a chicken breast, and be white on the inside. Another tip: chanterelles tend to grow in pairs.
“And usually how they work is the first one comes up and matures a little bit ahead of the other one. And that’s some sort of strategy to help spread spores. Spread it out over time, so they’re more successful at colonizing,” said Nowak. “So if you’re harvesting chanterelles, I recommend if you see a baby one next to one, you should just trim the first one and leave the second one to mature.”
If you find a chanterelle, take a good look all around before you leave, says Nowak. Chances are several more are hiding nearby; they tend to grow in groups. Just last week, Nowak came home with a 30-pound haul of wild chanterelles.
“Probably if they were dry, it would have been more like 20 pounds. But yeah, it was a huge amount of mushrooms,” he says, laughing. “This is such a fantastic year. There are so many mushrooms out there.”
Nowak drives as far as five hours, one way, for a day of foraging. The Northwest is “mushroom heaven,” he says. But as much as he loves to find—and eat—mushrooms, he says it isn’t about the haul; the joy lies in the process.
“If I don’t have a big find, if I don’t get that 20 pounds of chanterelles, it’s still so much fun to be out in the woods, the fresh air, the beauty. It’s very gratifying even if I don’t find anything,” he says.