It’s a cool, rain-soaked Saturday in October. Instead of sitting by the fire, I’m bundled up in rain gear tramping through the overgrown forest of the Cowichan Valley (about an hour north of Victoria) with 19 other similarly clad adventurers. Led by French-trained chef and mycologist Bill Jones, we’re foraging for the first wild mushrooms of fall: chanterelles, cauliflower and lobster mushrooms.
While some, such as morels, are more plentiful in spring, it’s the wet, cool fall weather that produces the most abundant crops. Mushrooms are found throughout Canada—from Newfoundland and Labrador’s parks to the coastal forests of British Columbia—in grasslands, on trees and stumps, in bogs and marshes, on burnt ground, even on other fungi.
The history of picking your own wild mushrooms
Mushroom foraging has a long history in Europe, where it’s regulated and government agents are frequently on hand to help identify different varieties. In Canada, there are few regulations. You can’t forage in a national park, on private property or in some provincial parks. (The rules vary; check to be sure.) However, picking is allowed on Crown land—although there are no government officials to identify mushrooms; responsibility rests with the individual. That, coupled with some old myths, may leave people wary.
“We’ve been raised on stories of toadstools and poisonous mushrooms, and that’s what comes to mind when people think of [foraging],” explains Jones, author of The Savoury Mushroom.
True, a small percentage of varieties are poisonous and some can be difficult to distinguish from their benign counterparts. But, by following certain rules (see “Code of Conduct,”) and by being extra cautious, foraging is a great way to partake of nature’s bounty.
Avoid small, emerging mushrooms, as well as large, rotting specimens; pluck (or cut off at ground level) only healthy, mature ones. Gently wipe away dirt and examine the plucked end for small, brown wormholes or lines. Keep only insect-free mushrooms.