The treasure hunt has begun and the search takes us into the lush-green playground that surrounds Tofino. It is the adults' Easter egg hunt; a reminder of childhood adventure, and a lesson in playing well. It is chanterelle season here in Tofino and the finding, gathering, and selling of these mushrooms seems to be inspiring a return to innocence.
On either side of the Pacific Rim Highway, in the abundant forest that surrounds Kennedy Lake, there are millions (billions?) of chanterelle mushrooms. Now that the season is upon us, you can wander into the woods and, within seconds, find yourself in a patch of sun-kissed yellow bulbs.
When the sun streams through the tree canopy, the chanterelles light up the forest and reveal their growth patterns. They cling to dead stumps, feeding on the nutrients of the undergrowth. Though the spores and roots are omnipresent in the forest, the caps appear in bunches and patches rather than in linear designs. Thus, it looks like the chanterelles exist in scattered communities within the forest; subdivisions of gold-light amongst a sea of green.
Recently, I was lucky enough to stand in one of these chanterelle patches. The impetus for my mushroom adventure can be blamed on the smiling faces of Karedwyn and Paul. These two expert gatherers took me to one of their picking spots midway through August. They have nicknamed the site, "U Pick" alluding to the overabundance of chanterelles that grow in that particular spot. Paul also refers to it as "granny-picking" because it is so easy to fill your bucket with prime chanterelles.
Certainly the task of picking chanterelles fares easier than that of picking pine mushrooms. Karedwyn and Paul caught the mushroom picking fever 13 years ago looking for pines. They describe the experience as something akin to the gold rush; in fact, amongst pickers the hunt for pines is frequently referred to as the "white gold rush." Karedwyn tells me that for the first year Paul went pine picking without her: "He returned skinny, tired and broke; but he had a fire in his eyes and I knew he had caught the mushroom fever." This fever led to 7 years of professional pine picking where the two witnessed the height of the pine market. According to matsiman.com in September 2003, Number One pine mushrooms were valued at $710 a pound. Furthermore, in Tokyo the same mushrooms were sold for $333 each.
Exorbitant mushroom prices soon fell and Karedwyn and Paul found themselves drifting back towards the coast. Hoping to keep up the practice of picking with less franticness, they began picking chanterelles. Though chefs in Tofino may benefit from their expertly sorted chefs' baskets, they also just pick for fun. In fact, they will take just about anyone who is interested in mushrooms, nature, and in having a good time.
The two local pickers are not territorial about the chanterelle patches they have found. They maintain that we all have a responsibility in knowing our environment and developing a relation- ship with it. "We keep the places we know alive," says Karedwyn. "If we don't go out in the woods then we won't care if it's logged. If it's logged then it will take 60-80 years for those mushrooms to grow again." In this vein, the two want to share the magical qualities of the chanterelle--from its discovery to its preparation--with anyone who is interested.
I was interested so I went out with them in mid-August when the season was just beginning. I could barely keep up with the sprinting Karadwyn whose "yoop" you could hear echoing through the woods whenever she found a patch. She maneuvered the forest quickly and effortlessly. Granny-picking though it may be, I was exhausted at the end of the four hours and she was just getting started. Paul humored my exhaustion by explaining the nutritional properties of the chanterelle. The chanterelle is loaded with vitamins b, e, d, and k. Chanterelles contain more protein than most vegetables and have trace elements of selenium, potassium and iron. In fact, most of the chanterelle's goodness is still unknown and Paul believes future studies will reveal even more beneficial qualities.
European folklore talks about enthusiastic gatherers who ventured out to collect mushrooms. Often the less privileged were denied the right to eat mushrooms and only the wealthy were allowed to indulge in the feasts (The Edible Mushroom -- A Gourmet Cook's Guide by Margaret Leibenstein). Folklore also speaks of the village mushroom "witch"--a person who was most knowledgeable and was able to identify which mushrooms were safe to keep (The Edible Mushroom). I suppose Tofitians are privileged in that we can all partake in the harvest of the chanterelle. In addition, we have some modern day witches amongst us who are more than willing to guide us through forests replete with treasures.
Proviso: Pick at your own risk! Some mushrooms look like chanterelles and may be poisonous. The best way to enjoy the chanterelle season is to go with experienced pickers such as Paul and Karedwyn.