Wine Culture Magazine

Born of fire and rain, these earthy fungi are endlessly versatile

Earthy morel mushrooms grow all over B.C., especially in the wake of forest fires. Getty Images photo

This has been by any measure a dreadful summer of smoke and fire across British Columbia. But even a pyrocumulonimbus cloud has its silver lining, and the silver lining of fire season is mushrooms. Specifically, the wonderfully earthy, nutty, cone-shaped morel mushroom so prized by chefs and diners alike.

“There’s probably five different types of morels and, in the western part of North America, it’s a common occurrence to find millions of morels fruiting after a forest fire,” says Bill Jones, the proprietor of Deerholme Farm on Vancouver Island and author of The Deerholme Mushroom Book (TouchWood Editions).

Morels are just one of the 40 or 50 types of edible mushrooms commonly foraged across B.C., which include lobster, pine, hedgehog, chanterelle and porcini. “The most valuable ones are pine mushrooms and morels, but in terms of volume, it would be chanterelles,” says Jones, a French-trained chef and avid forager who regularly features wild mushrooms at the dinners he hosts in his Cowichan Valley farmhouse.

Delicate chanterelles are among the earliest mushrooms to fruit in spring. Getty Images photo

Chanterelles and morels appear in spring, but for most mushrooms, Jones says, “The main season here starts around the end of September and through October and November. There’s a real progression throughout the year.” Some, especially chanterelles and the porcinis that are so abundant in the Okanagan, have two seasons, one in spring, the other in fall.

Mushrooms grow in secluded spots, their earthen hues blending into the foliage of the forest floor. Many are mycorrhizal, which means they grow in a beneficial relationship with certain trees, tucked shyly amid the roots of Douglas fir on the coast and pines inland.

But beware that not every mushroom is safe to eat. Before you pick, get advice from an expert. As Jones points out, “There are lots of lookalike mushrooms that are very poisonous.”

Which is why you may prefer to shop for cultivated mushrooms instead.

“Cultivated” doesn’t necessarily mean boring white mushrooms. At least not when Brian Callow is growing them. He’s the farmer-owner of What The Fungus, the Summerland-based mushroom farm best known for the gourmet oyster mushrooms that appear on menus throughout the Okanagan.

“I got interested in farming because of the respect people have for local produce in the Okanagan,” Callow says. He started learning about mushrooms years ago when he worked as a server at Fairmont Château Whistler, and the more he learned, the more interested he became. In 2013, he started selling mushrooms from his Penticton home.

“I just really enjoyed mushrooms, even foraging for them, and it was a great opportunity for me to take my life in a different direction,” Callow says. “It was fascinating and challenging.”

Chefs love the subtle umami flavour of oyster mushrooms. Getty Images photo

Now he sells eight to 10 varieties, including oyster, lion’s mane and chestnut, to 40 different restaurants and to consumers direct from the farm. “We try to give our chefs a seasonal mix,” he says, but admits the most popular are the various types of oyster mushrooms. “Chefs want oyster mushrooms for sure.”

That said, Callow is always experimenting with new varieties, and offers intensive courses on growing mushrooms, too. “We’ve been doing the mentorship programs for five years. Before COVID, we’d get people from all over the world,” Callow says.

And, of course, he cooks with mushrooms himself. “My personal favourite is a cream sauce for pasta,” he says. He’s also prepared mushrooms “pulled-pork style,” slow cooked and piled on a soft, fresh bun, or simply sautéed with butter.

“Mushrooms, you’re able to cook mushrooms however you cook meat,” he says. “Just don’t wash them. Mushrooms absorb a lot of water, so just brush them and maybe cook them off a little bit before adding oil or butter. The true flavour of mushrooms comes from the sugars that caramelize in the pan when you get them brown.”

Meanwhile, at Deerholme Farm, Jones uses mushrooms in everything from soup to salads, stews and even sweets. “I use a lot of mushroom powder in pasta and bread, sauces and hummus,” he says. “If I have a lot of chanterelles, I will make a lot of pickles with them.”

Mushrooms are endlessly versatile, especially when it comes to wine pairings.

“If you cook mushrooms with butter, they will go with anything,” says Jones. “In terms of mushrooms themselves, and I include truffles here, there are some classic pairings. Pinot Noir all over the world is a classic pairing. In France, Chardonnay is a classic pairing. But in Alsace they’d say you need a late-harvest Gewürztraminer.”

It’s too soon to know if this is going to be a good mushroom season, although the fires suggest that spring should be a bountiful one for morels.

“I can’t tell you if it’s going to be a good year until the rains arrive in September,” Jones says. “They are just more abundant if there is torrential rain. The more rain, the more mushrooms.”

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