Mushroom foraging on Vancouver Island

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Foraging, food and fungi.  That was what it was all about when we spent a recent Saturday with Bill Jones of Deerholme Farm in the beautiful Cowichan Valley. Eleven of us gathered at Jones’ charming 1904 Deerholme Cottage to learn all about the magic and culture of foraging for wild mushrooms on Vancouver Island.

Exterior of a quaint cottage with a blooming garden.

Deerholme Cottage Photo: Shirley Culpin

Jones is a renowned chef who has worked all over the world, and an acknowledged expert on the subject of wild mushrooms and their use in culinary endeavours.  He has written 11 cookbooks, including one about mushrooms of course, and is currently working on his twelfth. The depth and breadth of his knowledge about edible (and non-edible) fungi is truly impressive.

Each autumn Bill runs mushroom foraging workshops that include a short lecture highlighting the mushrooms found locally, a delicious lunch that includes the subject of his talks, and a 1 – 2 hour walk through forests and along paths near his 5-acre farm.

When we arrived Bill was busy in the kitchen doing some prep for lunch.  We had an opportunity to browse through his many books and admire all the mushroom décor that occupies every nook and cranny.  Once everyone arrived we settled at the long dining table to enjoy a hummus featuring chanterelle and porcini mushrooms while listening to Bill’s engaging lecture (although his droll humour made it a lot more fun than any lecture I have ever attended).

A man holds a large piece of cauliflower fungus.

Bill with a cauliflower fungus – edible and a very different texture Photo: Shirley Culpin

The “lecture” entailed a discussion of the many types of mushrooms found in the Cowichan region.  Although there are about 10,000 different types world-wide, Bill focuses on about 40 that, as he so adroitly puts it “are good to eat, and those that can kill you.”  He discusses ideal growing conditions (which haven’t been so great this year) and prime mushroom environments in the wild. He holds up various varieties of uncultivated mushrooms, slices them open and hands them around the table so that those attending can get a close look at the various characteristics of the many shapes and sizes of edible fare “out there.”

An artfully plated dish of pork terrine, iceberg lettuce, and porcini mushrooms.

One of the flavourful courses featuring wild mushrooms – pork terrine with porcini mushrooms. Photo: Shirley Culpin

The lecture consumes a little more time than scheduled, but no one cares – the relaxed vibe of Deerholme and its host has taken hold and we all have slid into a happy haze of autumn sunshine streaming through the windows, much laughter and delight at our new-found knowledge.

When the lecture ends Bill returns to the kitchen to finish putting lunch together while we hang along the counter watching him or peruse the handouts he has given us. Within minutes beautiful slices of terrine featuring porcini mushrooms arrive on the table, accompanied by a simple romaine salad.  Bowls of rice chowder with aged Chinese ham and wild mushrooms arrive next, along with a serving of home-grown tomato soup with porcinis for the single vegetarian in our group.

A man bends over to pick a mushroom off the forest floor.

A find in the forest…. Photo: Shirley Culpin

And then, it was off to the woods and trails to seek out the wild treasure that we had been salivating over for the past few hours. Because weather conditions hadn’t been ideal up to the point of our arrival (too dry for too long), the pickings were pretty slim. However as Bill explained this outing was not meant to actually be a foraging trip, but an introduction to where and how to find these edible wild jewels.  The expedition did give us all hands-on experience on ideal terrain for various varieties of wild mushrooms – and it drove home the fact that mushroom foraging is not for sissies. Hiking uphill through dense forest undergrowth was only part of the experience but there can be little doubt that anyone interested in foraging needs to be reasonably fit and very aware of their surroundings.

Our two-hour outdoor adventure did yield up a variety of both edible and poisonous mushrooms, and the company of the mushroom maestro and nine other “students” made for an engaging afternoon.

Back at the cottage we sat down to Bill’s final gustatory masterpiece of the day – a unique, not-too-sweet apple crumble featuring caramelized fruit from the Deerholme tree, sesame oil and sesame seeds in the topping and a lovely wild plum sauce as accompaniment.  No mushrooms – even Bill’s innate sense for wonderful flavour combinations couldn’t deal with that challenge in a dessert, but no matter.

We all headed home after six hours (an hour late, but who cared?) of enjoying so much that the good earth has to offer. While foraging is a very trendy thing these days, we came away from Deerholme feeling that fashionable pursuits were the last thing on any of the participants’ minds – it was just a great gathering overall for many, many reasons. And the fact that we all got sent home with a bag of wild chanterelles? No one would have argued that it was the perfect cap to the day.