Mushrooms: Nature's treasure hunt

A basket is filled with chanterelles and lobster mushrooms that were found last month on a mushroom hunt with the South Sound Mushroom Club in the Capitol State Forest, south of Olympia.
A basket is filled with chanterelles and lobster mushrooms that were found last month on a mushroom hunt with the South Sound Mushroom Club in the Capitol State Forest, south of Olympia. The Olympian

The mud-splattered mountain bikers came to a sliding stop on the trail. They removed their helmets to get a closer look at what was about to cross their trail: A man and a woman carrying baskets filled with huge, grotesquely shaped, bright red mushrooms.

Christina Kurty and Joe Kelley, two members of the South Sound Mushroom Club, were in the middle of a fall ritual, the hunt for wild, edible fungi. They were two of 10 members of the South Sound Mushroom Club – along with one reporter – who took a recent Saturday to scour the wooded hills south of Olympia for fungi. The rains had just returned to the Capital Forest and mushroom hunters were sprouting as fast as their quarry. “It’s like a treasure hunt,” said club president Tom Keller.

Spend only a small time in a Northwest forest and one begins to realize how vast and diverse the fungal universe is. For hunters, surreal shapes and fairy tale colors are only part of the allure. Factor in the delicious flavors (and dangerous poisons), wrap it up in an Easter egg-like hunt and it soon becomes obvious why this hobby is so addictive.

First stop on our itinerary was Margaret McKenny Campground. The choice is practical (it’s a great mushroom area) but also symbolic. McKenny was an authority on mushrooms and wrote the book on the subject. Literally. Keller pulled out McKenny’s “The New Savory Wild Mushroom” (co-authored by Daniel Stuntz) in the campground’s parking lot before we set out. The hunters are armed with baskets (they protect the fragile mushrooms and allow spores to fall to the ground), a brush (to remove forest debris) and a knife (to cleanly slice the mushrooms from their underground roots.)

We set off down a trail in the airy forest. As if on cue, the foragers suddenly spread out in to the forest. I follow Keller, a man who has been hunting mushrooms for almost 30 years. If he’s gone that long without succumbing to a misidentified mushroom, I’m in good hands. Within seconds he finds a chanterelle and holds it up for me to admire, its golden hued top folding on itself like a curtain. A few moments later, Kurty finds a shaggy mane. The elegant and elongated mushroom was standing at attention in the middle of a trail.

I’m not having much luck. Keller and Kurty offer some gentle advice: It takes more than just looking down. Mushrooms, the fruiting bodies of potentially huge underground fungi, don’t need to be found. The more desirable the mushroom, the more they seem to blend into their forest surroundings. Look for mature Douglas fir trees, they tell me – that’s where prized chanterelles and lobsters like to grow. If you see a cedar, you might as well turn around. “Nothing worth eating is under a cedar,” Karen Keller, Tom’s wife, said.

Experienced mushroom hunters like the Kellers would never turn their noses up at chanterelles ($20 a pound in markets) but Tom makes no apologies that they barely make his top 10 favorite fungi list. He prefers morels, boletes, oysters, Agaricus agustus and shaggy manes, to name a few.

Just before we leave the campground, Keller finds a group of puffballs. Kurty cuts one open. They’re good eating when young, Keller says. Just don’t confuse them with the poison version, he adds. Later, I consult my book on poisonous mushrooms. It helpfully notes under a photo of puffballs, “Do not confuse with edible puffballs.” I can’t tell the difference. I cross puffballs off my foraging list.

There are thousands of fungi species in the Northwest, many bearing a striking resemblance to one another. Knowing which is which will make the difference between a tasty meal and having a really bad day. Some poisonous varieties can be deduced just by their names: death cap, deadly parasols, fly agaric, poison pie, destroying angel, sweat-causing clitocybe. And the list of possible symptoms from mushroom poisoning is enough to give any novice pause: nausea, hallucinations, vomiting, cramps, wheezing, spasms, liver failure, kidney damage, coma. And death.

One genus of mushrooms, Caprinus, contains a substance called coprine which interferes with alcohol metabolism in the human body. If you’re a tea totaler, no problem. But add a glass of wine and you’ll have to book time in the emergency room. Because mushrooms can affect people differently, experts recommend trying only small samples of new mushrooms of only one kind and always cooked.


Our next stop was a ridge that in the past had been a rich hunting ground for chanterelles and other species. As we pulled up it was apparent there wouldn’t be any hunting in that forest today; it had been recently clear cut. Undeterred, we crossed the road to an area that had all the hallmarks of a target-rich site: hilly, old trees and dappled sunlight. But we came up short. First-timer Patti Luger of Centralia didn’t seem to mind. “Even if you don’t find mushrooms, you’re guaranteed to find a beautiful day,” she said as she diligently looked under leaves.

Even veterans such as the Kellers say the vagaries of mushroom growing remain a mystery. Habitat, soil temperature and moisture levels have to be right. But even then, mushrooms follow a schedule known only to them.

As Tom and I were examining a log with a crop of Smurf-worthy mushrooms, his two-way crackled, “Where are you?” The Kellers always hunt with the radios as well as GPS devices. It’s easy to get lost in the dense forests, especially when your gaze is constantly directed at your feet, Keller says.

Jumping in our cars and trucks we head farther into the forest. We park at an area with mature Douglas fir. We find a few small chanterelles – and plenty of stems: another hunter had beaten us to the punch a few days earlier. Undeterred, Kurty cheerfully pushes on through thick brush. “It’s a gas. I love it,” she says. Her philosophy, Kurty says, is to go where others don’t.

We come to a large fir. Kurty goes left and I break right. Suddenly, I find myself standing in the motherload of mushrooms. Chanterelles sprout everywhere at my feet. On the slope above them half a dozen vividly red lobsters erupt from the ground.

As Kurty goes to work with her knife I feel like we’re in Ali Baba’s cave. It really is a treasure hunt.

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541

Chanterelle Gravy

1/4 cup olive oil

2/3 pound chanterelles mushrooms cleaned of any tree needles and chopped

1/2 teaspoon thyme

1/4 teaspoon rosemary

3 tablespoons minced shallots

2 ounces unsalted butter

3 tablespoons all purpose flour

3 to 4 cups chicken stock at room temperature

Salt and pepper to taste

Parsley for garnish

Heat the olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the shallots and then the chanterelles, thyme and rosemary. Cook for 3 minutes, and then place a lid on the pot and turn the heat to medium low for 3 minutes. Add the butter, and whisk until it melts. Add the flour, and whisk until it forms a sticky roux with the mushrooms. Cook for about 2 minutes. Add the chicken broth, a ladle at a time, whisking into the roux continually to create a smooth sauce to desired thickness. Cook, stirring regularly until the sauce reaches the desired thickness, about 7 to 10 minutes. Remove from the heat but keep warm to serve.

Source: Charlie McManus, Primo Grill, 601 S. Pine St., Tacoma; 253-383-7000

Minced Chicken with Mushrooms

2 cups cooked chicken

1 cup mushrooms

12 cup milk

12 teaspoon salt

14 teaspoon pepper

1 tablespoon flour

1 tablespoon margarine

Cut mushrooms into small pieces and sauté in their own liquid for 5 min. Remove from pan, set aside and keep hot. Rub margarine into flour and add mushroom liquid. Add mushrooms and chicken, cut moderately fine. Cook for 3 minutes, stirring continually. Add seasonings and serve over toast.

Source: South Sound Mushroom Club Cookbook

Pork Chops and Boletus

4-6 pork chops

1 ounce butter

2 small onions, sliced

1 green pepper, sliced

2 tomatoes, chopped

3 Boletus, large, sliced

1 cup broth

1 teaspoon curry powder

1 tablespoon flour

Boiled new potatoes

Salt and pepper to taste

Broil pork chops slightly and lay in a large baking dish. Fry the onions, peppers, tomatoes and Boletus in butter. Add broth, salt, pepper and curry. Thicken with flour. Pour over chops. Garnish the edges of casserole with boiled new potatoes, put chops and sauce in middle and bake for 20 minutes at 350 degrees.

Source: South Sound Mushroom Club Cookbook

Beef Stuffed Morels

2 pounds spinach, chopped

1 pound ground beef

12 cup, chopped onion

12 cup, grated cheese

1 teaspoon herb seasoning

1 pound large morels, cut in half, stems removed and chopped

Sauté all above, except morel halves and cheese. Stuff morels with mixture and place in baking pan. Top with grated cheese. Bake at 350 degrees for 20-30 minutes, depending on the size of the morels.

Source: South Sound Mushroom Club Cookbook

Alsatian Mushroom Tart

4 cups dried wild mushrooms

White wine

Prepared pie crust

For the filling:

2 cups chopped onion

4 tablespoons butter

2 teaspoons fresh thyme, chopped

1 large Portobello mushroom, chopped

1 cup crimini mushrooms, chopped

3-4 large eggs

12 cup cream

12 cup milk

Salt and pepper

For the prep: Take four cups dried, wild mushrooms and cover with white wine or water and allow to reconstitute for an hour or more. Roll out one pie crust to fit a quiche dish that has been lightly coated with cooking spray. Chill for 15 minutes. Put a piece of parchment or wax paper on top of dough and sprinkle on a layer of rice, beans or pie weights. Bake in a 375 degree oven for 20-25 minutes, until light brown. Pull out paper and weights. Chill until cool.

For the filling: Melt butter in a large sauté pan. Add onions and thyme. Cook over medium heat. Add fresh mushrooms and cook until softened. Strain the dried mushrooms and add to the mix. Reserve soaking liquid. Cook for another 10-15 minutes until everything is soft. Add soaking liquid when mixture begins to dry out.

Crack eggs into a large bowl and whisk. Add cream and milk adding a teaspoon of salt and a few twists of freshly ground pepper. Pour the cooked onions and mushrooms into the cooked pie crust. Pour the egg mixture over the mushrooms and smooth out the top. Bake at 375 degrees for 15-20 minutes or until it has become firm. Cool for 10 minutes. Serve.

Source: South Sound Mushroom Club Cookbook

2010 Wild Mushroom Show

Who: Puget Sound Mycological Society (Seattle based)

When: Noon-7 p.m. Oct. 16, Noon-5 p.m. Oct. 17

Where: The Center for Urban Horticulture, University of Washington, 3501 NE 41 Street, Seattle

Admission: $9 general, $6 students and seniors, children under 12 free


More: The club will have 200-300 freshly picked species identified and on display plus lectures, items for sale and tastings.

Who: South Sound Mushroom Club (Olympia based)

Annual dues: $6

Info: 360-789-5930;

More: The club meets monthly and holds mushroom identification and gathering trips