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Foraging brings out an inner child August 19, 2008 - canada.com
"The Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island is the most wondrous area on the planet for mushrooms," says Bill Jones, a French-trained chef who once cooked at Sooke Harbour House and is the author of nine cookbooks, including The Savoury Mushroom.
In Duncan, where he now lives, he loves to take classes out into the woods, foraging for mushrooms and other edibles. In fall and spring, he guides foraging walks followed by dinners at his farm (watch www.magnorth.bc.ca for details).
"There's an enormous amount of plants foraged here," he says of Vancouver Island. "Starting in spring, we forage for edibles like stinging nettles, young horsetail ferns, dandelion leaves, salmon berry sprouts and ox-eye daisy leaves. Around April, we find morel mushrooms. This year we had a particularly good crop. One of my favourite treats are the new shoots of grand fir trees. We infuse them in honey and make a fabulous concoction, great for curing salmon and making tea in the winter for a good source of vitamin C."
In the summer months, he's been picking berries: Himalayan blackberries, high bush huckleberries and salmon berries. In late summer, he's hunting for the first crop of chanterelles, salal berries, Oregon grape, Nootka rose hips and wild cherries and plums.
"We have the advantage of being in a rain shadow which provides a unique climate particularly suited to berries. Fall is the mushroom season here and it's one of the best places in the world to forage for fungi. The key to mushrooms is a mature stand of forest. It limits the plant growth underneath the canopy and provides less competition for the mushrooms. It also encourages moss growth which is a key component to retaining moisture but recently the exceptionally heavy harvest of timber all over the island has focused on mature stands and many accessible areas have had their prime mushroom patches decimated by logging. It will take 15 to 20 years to return."
Jones says it's "fairly easy" to forage for mushrooms. It's another matter to remain unpoisoned, he adds. "There are many plants with toxic compounds which can seriously ruin your day. If you're not 100-per-cent sure of the identification of wild food, you should not consume or touch any wild plant. Some contain nasty compounds and acids that can blister skin, cause digestive upset and in the worst cases, lead to kidney failure, coma and death. Talk about ruining your day!"
Prepare for all kinds of weather, pack a cellphone and food and wear sturdy footwear, he says. "And leave enough time so you're well clear of the woods by dusk. This is hunting time for cougars and to a lesser extent, bears. To avoid being cougar bait, avoid dusk at all cost. It is also really easy to become confused and disoriented when light leaves the forest."
Jones' favourite guide book is All the Rain Promises and More by David Aurora. As for why he would spend countless hours hunting for mushrooms he could buy in a store these days, leaving the grunt work to professional foragers, he goes all poetic: "There's something soul-satisfying about foraging for food in nature's supermarket. Fresh air, culinary treasures and no lineups!"
People in his foraging classes, he says, seem to find their inner child. "Their eyes light up and they experience real joy in connecting with the land. Top that off with exercise, plenty of oxygen-rich air and the beauty of nature. It's a recipe for good living if I've ever heard one."