The Pacific Northwest is a mushroom forager’s Mecca
Top chefs are turning to the forest, not the farmer, for specialty ingredients that range from chanterelles to wild lemongrass—and Tyler Gray of Mikuni Wild Harvest is happy to give it to them.
“You can’t tell anyone about this,” Tyler Gray warns me, turning his 1961 Chevrolet Apache up a rocky slope that is ominous even in the crisp, early morning light. But he doesn’t need to worry about me tattling: though we drove off the ferry onto the winding roads of the Sunshine Coast mere minutes ago, my terrible sense of direction already has me disoriented. I couldn’t reveal his secret mushroom-hunting spot to the world even if I wanted to. Gray, on the other hand, has impeccable attention, and his hawk eyes spot microscopic clusters of brown cap mushrooms on the side of the road as he drives and tells stories about being chased by bears while searching for porcini.
At 35, Gray is a shrewd businessman with the face of a grad student. He’s rugged and as we head into the woods, he dons a fedora to protect his scalp from ticks (and, presumably, for Indiana Jones appeal). Today, he’s on day 12 of a cleanse and feeling “low energy,” but he fires up as we clamber up the ankle-breakingly steep embankment. “Every time I walk into the bush my heart skips a beat,” Gray says, scanning the landscape. “I have this sense of wonder. You never know—it’s about connecting with nature in a much more engaging, visceral manner. When I walk through a park, I can’t help but look at the grass or up at the trees, looking for edible herbs and plants.” He’s been stranded all night in the rainy Yukon wilderness; he’s quit golf games halfway through to fill his golf bag to the brim with giant cauliflower mushrooms growing on the course. He’s a treasure hunter, at one with nature.
He’s quit golf games halfway through to fill his golf bag to the brim with giant cauliflower mushrooms growing on the course. He’s a treasure hunter, at one with nature.
Usually, Gray works in a methodical, combing zigzag; today, we freestyle and head straight up the wooded slope, scanning the ground for telltale signs of fungi activity. By “we,” I mean him. All I see are pine needles and weird slugs, but he dives purposefully at nondescript lumps in the ground and pulls away debris to reveal matsutake mushrooms that were hidden in plain sight. He gently brushes off the dirt to reveal a smooth white cap the size of a golf ball; rotating the mushroom like a joystick, he brushes away the spores at the base. Gray re-covers the ground, and the mushroom goes in a roomy plastic bucket. By the end of the day, the bucket will be filled with two pounds of matsutakes, pig’s ears, chanterelles and milk caps. Not one of them will be contributed by me. He’s been coming here since he was a kid growing up in Sechelt, when he foraged and canned with his mother—a locavore before locavores even existed.
In the ’90s, the Pacific Northwest was home to a veritable mushroom gold rush. Matsutakes were—and are—some of the most valuable mushrooms in the world, and foragers flocked to the damp forests of B.C., Washington and Oregon to test their luck. But though the matsutake, chewy and piney, thrives here, it has rarely been appreciated by North American palates. When Gray first met his partners, Tim and Gord Weighill, they were exporting 90 percent of the bounty they bought from foragers to Europe and Asia. With their current company, Mikuni Wild Harvest, their goal is to keep the bounty here for chefs at home. They’ve been selling foraged delicacies and sourced gourmet rarities to restaurants and spend-happy foodies all over North America since 2001. There are mushrooms, of course, but their catalogue also includes wild asparagus, sake-cured caviar, fermented aged black garlic and mysterious Japanese apples that are bright red inside and out. The chefs, says Gray, get a rush out of creating menus with something new. “Wild asparagus tastes like sweet English peas. You taste the asparagus in stores and there’s very little sweetness—this is a result of planting 10,000 stalks, competing for nutrients, not really getting everything they need to be the best asparagus they can be. In the wild, they blossom, consuming as many nutrients and proteins as they need to achieve what they naturally are,” he explains, gently tossing some nutty bolete mushrooms that I had almost stepped on into our pail. “Chefs are excited about the possibilities of using the core ingredient to get to pure, true, natural flavours. They’re looking for different things to work with to keep them creatively engaged and with this back-to-the-land movement . . . people want moss ice cream.”
Last year’s matsutake crop was a bust. That’s the risk with wild food—sometimes nature doesn’t provide consistency the way that farming can. “It’s like a stock market,” Gray says. “Supply changes. Prices change. There’s a lot of trial and error, too. You’re only as good and proficient in your foraging as the work that you’ve put into it. For every one spot where you find edible and valuable mushrooms, you’ve been to 20 where there’s nothing.”
It can be cutthroat here: foraging as competitive sport. Elsewhere in the country, like in Saskatchewan, where there’s little professional foraging culture, Gray has gathered 100 pounds of $20-a-pound mushrooms from the side of the road. “People would stop and say, ‘What are you doing? Looking for cranberries?'” Today, Gray made sure we hit the road before dawn to beat any competitors to the $40-a-pound matsutakes growing in his secret spot.
After four hours lurking in the forest, we emerge into the cloudy white sunlight, the bucket bulging with our bounty. It smells like the earth. At home, I wash and chop the matsutakes, the chanterelles, the pig’s ears, and sauté them in butter as instructed. They’re meaty, spicy, wild; they’re prizes, trophies from my first hunt.