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A family goes hunting the wild mushroom

Alice Farrell carves her initials in a bracket fungus. If she comes back later, she’ll find her name emblazoned on the fungus’ now firm skin.

By Marlene Farrell

Photos by Kevin Farrell

Last fall when Sherri Schneider agreed to take my family out for a day of mushroom hunting so I could write an article about this uncommon outdoor pursuit, she insisted that our hunting grounds remain undisclosed.

“We ‘shroomers’ are a secretive bunch,” she explained.

Despite her words, Sherri proved throughout the day that she is a generous teacher. The tips came faster than I could write — about mushroom habitat, weather and how it relates to timing, effective hunting technique, identification, general lore and culinary tips.

We met Sherri and her mushroom buddy, Mary Woods, at a parking lot and we — myself, my husband and son and daughter — were immediately given walkie-talkies and mushroom nicknames. Porcini (Sherri) and Jack-o-Lantern (Mary) helped us pick colorful names from the go-to guidebook, All the Rain Promises and More: a Hip Pocket Guide to Western Mushrooms.

Armed with the new names, Shaggy Stalk, Angel Wings, Blue Knight and Yellow Foot, we hopped into two cars. As we raced up Icicle Road to some prime hunting grounds the kids practiced coded radio lingo so as to not reveal our “secret mission.”

Close to our first location, the cars slowed to a crawl, and we rolled down the windows. Like eager dogs, we hung our heads out, looking for “shrumps” (humps of disturbance in the soil).

Last year was a tough year for mushrooms. So, without spying a shrump, we parked and started hunting on foot.

The reason for the walkie-talkies became apparent as the kids scurried ahead. Sherri said, “With beginners I strap a walkie-talkie to their jackets, because they tend to keep their heads down in their excitement over finding mushrooms and completely forget where they are.”

We took our cues from Porcini and Jack-o-Lantern. We walked slowly, fanning out. I looked for a typical toadstool, with domed cap on top of a thin stalk.

But following Sherri, seeing what she sees, was a lesson in changing my search image. Some edible mushrooms, like honey mushrooms, do have that typical shape, but many lie flat or have chubby stalks. No matter the shape, they all grow extensively underground and erupt when mature, so the key is to spot dark patches of disturbed soil surrounding something pale (or red or brown).

To add to the challenge, the ground is often covered in thick layers of leaf or needle litter, as well as low-lying vegetation. Hence the search for shrumps that are then prodded with a foot, or, for Sherri, her trekking pole. She said, “It’s slow going: take three to five steps, look around, look up, down and behind, dig under a suspicious bump, move some leaf litter, take another five steps and repeat.”

We reaped some rewards early on. Blue Knight found a mushroom with a pink stem, that, when snapped, broke cleanly, like a piece of chalk. That is characteristic of the Russula family, and Sherri identified it as an edible shrimp mushroom, named for its taste.

Yellow Foot and Jack-o-Lantern found several beautiful specimens of matsutake. It’s identified from other poisonous white look-alikes by its cinnamon-stained cap and stalk. We felt the feathery ring around its stem that looked like a skirt. It used to be attached to the underside of the mushroom cap, but split off to allow spores to disperse. A final key feature was the dusty gray substrate that always covers the base. We couldn’t agree on the smell but decided it was a mix of cinnamon and wet dog.

That incongruity of opinion over the aroma of matsutakes is one reason why Sherri loves them. When I asked about other favorites, she mentioned, “I love the prince for its beauty, rarity and utterly decadent almondy aroma. I love the bear’s head because it’s covered in bright white, fragile icicle-like spines that seem to light up the trees overhead when dusk falls. And I love porcinis!”

Her excitement over all things mushrooms, revealed by such comments, was both palpable and contagious.

It all began over 20 years ago, when Sherri was living in Germany. “I started with simple picture guidebooks while out walking my baby and would load up his pram with edible weeds and plants and a few mushrooms. I didn’t know enough at that time to eat any of the mushrooms, but I was hooked.”

She moved to Wenatchee in 1995 and had another son. Hiking with her small children, she found mushrooms everywhere but couldn’t identify them. She finally got help from friend and botanist, Julie Sanderson.

“Julie was the person who set me on the path of learning mycology when she taught me how to use an identification key. Julie also taught me to ‘Never eat any mushroom unless you are 100 percent sure of your identification.’ And, ‘Evolution has given humans a strong sense of revulsion for rotting things — use it.’”

Sherri has had many mentors, whose knowledge she readily applies. She spent seven weeks guiding David Arora, one of the world’s leading mycology experts, through the eastern Cascades. She repeats his opposing advise: “Only a very, very few mushrooms would kill me, so learn definitively and be open-minded and ready to taste the rest. Worst case scenario, you get a little case of the ‘runs’ and then ‘runs’ off into the woods.”

Sherri’s time with David honed her skills as he taught her “marker species,” the plants associated with the ideal growing conditions for certain mushrooms. For instance, chanterelles can be found near kinnikinnick, Oregon grape and huckleberry.

Those plants made up the dominant understory when we found our biggest crop of chanterelles that day.

I had to step carefully in case my foot smushed a shrump, all the while looking for a bit of white or pale gold, like a tiny iceberg protruding from the litter and dirt.

When we found one clump, I scraped away the leaves and dug carefully around it. The chanterelles have delicate frilly edges, but once plucked, I could see a hefty stem. After dusting off some dirt with a paintbrush, it joined the other mushrooms in our basket.

Sherri said they use any breathable materials for carrying out mushrooms, like canvas or netted bags and wicker baskets. “All of these allow the spores to fall out onto the ground. Wherever we pick, we are spreading more mushroom spores.”

After four hours of hunting in many spots along Icicle Road, it was time to take home our bounty. We had a basket-full. In a bumper year, like 2013, which enjoyed a relatively cool, moist summer, we would have collected a car-full.

But our family was content.

The diversity of growing conditions for different mushroom species means a diversity of cooking options once the mushrooms are home, definitively identified and cleaned.

The matsutake can be cooked in broth or in an Asian style to preserve its unusual flavor. The chanterelles have an affinity for butter and cream, so a little of both are used in cooking them down to a hearty sauce for meat, potatoes or pasta.

We expect to conclude our culinary adventure with the neon orange club mushrooms, fried and sprinkled on ice cream.

Porcini and Jack-o-Lantern went to one more location after we left, and they’ll be back other days until the snow is over three inches deep.

And Sherri will be coaxing beginners out in the woods, sharing her knowledge and passion.

She said, “I especially enjoy taking local chefs out into the woods. They love talking about food and I love hearing them. I want to make sure they know the basics of mushroom identification in case someone brings a box of “mixed wild mushrooms” to the back door of their restaurant.”

After this winter, when Sherri spent time cooking with the preserved delicacies from her cellar, she now waits for the snow to recede and morel season to begin.

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