Big game hunting for the wily rogue mushroom We walk through the forests on the prowl for edible secrets By Chris Woodall They are neither animal, vegetable nor mineral, but they are everywhere. They are most definitely alive. They wear caps that they do not need because they hide in shady places. They wear veils, but they are often not shy about showing off vibrant colours. They have gills, but breathe the air. They are so fragile they will shred and bruise at the slightest touch, but they can tear the earth asunder and split asphalt. "They" are mushrooms. Mushrooms are fungi, not vegetables, the chief characteristic being that they reproduce from microscopic spores; unlike carrots, trees or flowers that reproduce from seeds. Richard Auer and Pique Newsmagazine are deep in the forests around Whistler keeping our eyes roving for one or many of the edible types of mushrooms that are burgeoning at this time of year. "Etiquette is important," when out picking mushrooms, Auer says. He and his wife Christy are deep in mushroom lore. Together they own and are chefs of Grassroots Café in Whistler. Richard will be offering his fungal expertise at one of the Cornucopia food seminars, Saturday, Nov. 8. While Europeans, the Japanese and other cultures have a deep appreciation for the range and possibilities of mushrooms, white-butt North Americans — if we think of mushrooms at all — imagine them as something that goes on a pizza, beside a steak, or in a Campbell's soup product. Or we giggle suggestively at the warped state of mind that certain varieties of mushroom will spark up when eaten or drunk as a tea. "In Japan, there is such reverence for mushrooms that there are mushroom parks where you are not allowed in unless you know what you're doing," as a picker or collector, Auer says. But here in the woods, Auer the expert is guiding the Piqued novice through the mushroom world of British Columbia. "The first-time picker should never go by yourself," Auer says. "Talk to somebody who has picked and invite them to go along. Unless they are a jerk — and there are a few — they will be glad to go with you." Greenhorn pickers should also start by getting to know one variety of mushroom. But if you see several kinds, don't mix them. A mistake picking an inedible variety will contaminate the other kinds. When it comes time to eating them for the first time, consume only one type at a sitting and keep an extra one around. If your body reacts badly to the mushroom, you'll have a "sample" to show the emergency ward as they pump your guts. "Don't over eat and never drink alcoholic beverages the first time you try a mushroom, so if you have a bad reaction you'll know which it is that is making you sick," Auer says as we climb over a half-rotten, moss-carpeted cedar log. Alcohol especially can mix with the mushrooms to produce unhappy results. Those dire effects can mainly be severe diarrhoea, but not to worry. "I've gotten sick from store-bought oyster mushrooms," Auer says, underlining that it just may be your body's intolerance, not that the fungus is poisonous of itself. "You'd never eat a rotten apple, so never eat a decaying mushroom," Auer says, noting that the craze to pick and sell high-priced pine mushrooms sometimes leads people to try their cooking skills with inferior grades. Carrying a guide book is a good idea, to compare the real thing with photo illustrations. Even if it has black and white photos, they are important to get a good idea what you're looking at. Mere words will only take you so far. Taking time in the local library to study up before picking is another good idea. Once you get to know one variety, you may find that's the only one for you. "Everyone has their favourite mushroom," Auer says when we come to a small creek. "It's like wine: some people may only like merlot." On the other side of the creek, Auer has another picking tip. "Never eat a tiny bud the first time out. Fifty babies all look the same, right? A (highly poisonous) death cap bud looks very much like a pine mushroom," Auer says. Being out in mountainous forest means being prepared. "Bring a friend if you are going into unfamiliar terrain, bring a whistle 'cause no one will hear you if you scream, and bring other items as you would for any kind of hike," Auer says. It's easy to get lost, if you're not careful. "Pickers don't go on trails," the chef says. "And it gets dark early." Surprisingly, hunting for mushrooms is as much about looking up as it is about looking at the forest floor. "I do a lot of looking up," Auer says of studying a ridge line of trees or observing other habitat features that will point to potential homes for mushrooms. "It's important to check the weather," Auer adds. "Sudden changes can bring them on." We are now in a little bowl of trees and Auer has spotted the first mushroom we'll harvest. It's a chanterelle. This one is cone-shaped and dark cream coloured, has gills on the outside and is about the size of an adult hand. There are two others close by. "Chanterelles are one of the most superior mushrooms," Auer says, pocketing the treasures in a basket. "They are good with fish, veal, in omelettes — they make any dish special although they are hard to find because they grow among leaves that are the same colour as the mushroom." Watching Auer pick the ’shroom is a lesson in picker's etiquette. "Before you pick them, tap the mushroom on the cap to drop spores," Auer says. "Cut them at a reasonable height, put all the trimmings and other stuff dug out with the mushroom back in the hole and cover it over so no one can tell you were there." Getting a spore print from the mushroom will make it easier to be sure you have the right kind. Simply take a white piece of paper, cut the cap off the mushroom and lay it bottom down on the paper. The spores dropping off will make a pattern and indicate a colour that can be compared with that mushroom guide we talked of earlier. Try to work up hill, which will make it easier to spot uncertain spots on the forest floor that may hint of a mushroom lurking just below the surface. Nobody plants mushrooms, so it's up to pickers to be responsible. It doesn't always happen that way. "I've seen people with rakes tearing up a bed of moss to see if any mushrooms are there, which just destroys it," Auer says. "Enjoy yourself," is another Auer dictum. You aren't in the dirty city, but among the natural wonders of a B.C. wilderness. "Some people pick for their livelihood. I do it for the enjoyment of being outside and that I can bring something home that I'll never find anywhere else." The thrill of the hunt counts for more than the size of the prize for Auer. "Even if I get just one after a whole day of looking, it's worth it for the outdoor experience," Auer says. The chanterelles we have already seem to make the point, so we re-trace our steps for home. A vision of fresh mushroom soup dances in the mind.