On the Hunt: Foraging for Wild Mushrooms with Colin Meagher
In the past, and in many parts of the world still, foraging for food was not just a fun hobby, but an essential for survival. Knowing what is edible, and more importantly—what’s not—can make all the difference between nourishment and starvation. At a certain point, even through the miracles of commercial farming, people realized the forest still held a bounty of delicacies, if you could find them. From chanterelles and porcinis to hen of the woods and morels, mushrooms can be some of the most sought after forest edibles. While foraging can be intimidating to get into, as a simple misidentification could be fatal, the rewards, sauteed with some butter and olive oil, are worth the effort.
As a freelance mountain bike and outdoor photographer, Colin Meagher spends much of his year in the forest. After a bit of curiosity and research, he soon found himself getting lost in the woods in search of these little fungal delicacies. We recently had a chance to learn more about foraging from Colin; how to get into it, how to do it sustainably and what to do with the spoils. Hopefully Colin’s story will inspire you to take a look around the woods and see what sorts of treasures you can forage. In this day and age, it’s easier than ever to go to a specialty grocery store and pay and arm and a leg for chanterelles, but think of how much fun it would be to spend a relaxing day in forest, picking them yourself?
Can you give us a little background on yourself, where are you from and how did you first begin foraging?
My name is Colin Meagher. I work as a freelance outdoor sports photographer, with an emphasis on bicycling and outdoor lifestyle imagery. I grew up in Spokane, WA, and have lived in the PNW ever since.
I kind of got into foraging by accident. I do some shooting for Patagonia and I thought foraging might make a good photo, but I didn’t know anyone who knew how to forage. So I did a lot of research, bought some chanterelles at a local farmer’s market and went out in the woods.
It’s a good thing I’m stubborn: the first few times I went, I struck out completely. But I gradually figured it out. While I was foraging for chanterelles I started noticing a lot of other mushrooms. So I did some more research. Now I can collect about 20 different types of edibles when I’m out. Some are more common than others, though, so I may go a year or three without seeing certain types of ‘shrooms.
What originally interested you in foraging?
At first it was an idea for photography. At that time I was shooting mountain bike World Cup race photography, and between that, catalog and ad shooting, I’d be on the road pretty much non-stop from March through mid September. After that kind of constant travel, all I wanted to do was go and get lost on my mountain bike. Coincidentally, a lot of the places I’d ride had lots of chanterelles.
At some point on most rides I’d spot a chanterelle right on the trail. After that I’d find myself crashing while looking for mushrooms mid-ride. From that point I found myself ditching the bike and losing myself in the woods, chasing edible fungi. It became both a good way to reset after the grind of the World Cup as well as kind of a big kid Easter egg hunt.
You travel a lot for work, do you try to forage in new locations or do you usually stick to areas you already know?
Mix and match: I like to go to areas I know to get my “fix” but I also explore new areas all the time. I’ve foraged during shoots, too; once in the Czech republic during a World Cup I found my first porcini and some chanterelles—that was my first foreign experience. And during an EWS race in Colorado I came back from shooting practice with all the extra space in my camera bag stuffed with Aspen Boletes and Porcinis.
What does it mean to be a sustainable forager and why is that important?
Being a sustainable forager… As I understand it, the mycelium that produce fungi are a lot like an apple tree; the fungus we see is simply the fruiting body of that mycelium. When you pluck a mushroom, you are basically plucking an apple, so to speak. But that mushroom is the way that the mycelium reproduces. So to be sustainable, I don’t “clear cut” a zone the way a lot of commercial pickers will, and I carry a basket so the mushrooms I harvest are still dropping spores as I roam about the woods looking for more.
And by clear cutting, I mean if I come onto a good patch of chanterelles, for example, I’ll leave one or two for every 4 or 5 I pick, vs. picking everything in sight. To me being a sustainable forager means that a) the mushrooms I’m picking will continue to be where I look for them year after year, and b) other people who go foraging have a good experience, too.
Are there specific foraging techniques required to be sustainable like trimming at the base vs. just ripping the mushroom out?
As for foraging techniques, some people feel plucking hurts the mycelium and some avow that cutting the stem and leaving the “roots” in the mycelium leaves it open to potential infection. I’ve heard both sides and don’t have a definitive answer.
But a knife is useful for foraging, so I always carry one. Some mushrooms have look-a-likes and cutting into the stem or the body is a good way to verify your find. I tend to cut chanterelles where they emerge from the dirt for that reason (one of the look-a-likes has a hollow stem). Plus it gets the dirty roots off so that the mushrooms in my basket aren’t covered in dirt (which makes cleaning them a LOT more difficult). For porcini and other boletes, I pluck the mushroom and then trim the roots off to get rid of the dirt as well as check for maggots—chanterelles don’t have maggots in them but a lot of other mushrooms are food for other critters.
Is there some sort of barter or trade system with foraging? Do you mostly only get what you can eat yourself or do you trade for other goods?
Well, there are recreational pickers and commercial pickers. I’m a recreational picker, so by law I am limited to only pick what I can eat. That doesn’t mean I haven’t traded for something a time or two, but technically I’m not supposed to. Commercial pickers can pick more and can also sell or trade for goods or services. Depending on where you live and what kind of foraging you’re doing, you need either a recreational or a commercial picker’s permit. Each district is different. The best thing to do is check in with the ranger station or DNR office of the place you’re going to forage.
What is one of your favorite recipes for chanterelles or what do you usually do with them?
Chanterelles are pretty awesome sautéed with some onions and garlic and tossed into pasta. Super simple and damn good. The trick, though, is sautéing them dry at first—no oil or butter in the pan. Chanterelles have a lot of moisture in them and you want to cook that off before you add the pasta. Basically you just slice them up and toss them in a pan over medium high heat. A surprising amount of moisture will come out. Once the moisture starts to get re-absorbed, add in some butter or olive oil. Then the cooked pasta. I’ve made chanterelle meat loaf, risotto and stuffed game hens with them, too.
Aside from mushrooms, what are some other tasty edibles people can look for in the PNW that people generally overlook?
I’m maybe the wrong guy to ask about that because all I do is mushrooms and some wild berries (I love huckleberries!), but I know some folks will forage for ramps (kind of a wild scallion), miner’s lettuce, fiddle head ferns, and seaweed. Other people will jig for squid and dig clams, too, but again, I haven’t strayed from mushrooms.
What advice or encouragement would you give to someone who wants to go foraging but is afraid of eating a poisonous mushroom or plant?
Do your research. And do it thoroughly. There are a LOT of edibles out there, but collect something a few times and get it verified before you commit to eating it. And if you’re ever uncertain, either leave it in the ground or throw it away. More often than not you’ll just get sick—in some cases sick enough you’ll wish you were dead. Eating a poisonous mushroom isn’t like getting bitten by a snake; there isn’t any anti-venom for a toxic mushroom. It will kill you.
I won’t collect amanita fungi for exactly that reason—it’s just too easy to make a mistake with the edibles and the poisonous ones in that family of fungus. There’s no coming back from ingesting a destroying angel or a death cap without prompt medical treatment. But it’s pretty easy to identify a hedgehog, a chanterelle and a few other tasty edibles. And it’s a great way to get out in the woods and appreciate nature a bit. It’s just a matter of asking yourself if it’s worth your time to go find them, or is it better to score at the farmer’s market?
Have you had any memorable encounters with animals or people you’ve come across while out in the woods?
I’d love to tell you about the time I encountered a unicorn, but that might have been due to a different kind of mushroom… No, it’s typically just a quiet day in the woods. If I scratch my gray matter, I’d have to say that my memorable encounters are limited to encountering commercial picking operations. There’s nothing like running into a “crew” with machetes and side arms, “in case of bears or cougars,” to make me want to go pick somewhere else. But otherwise it’s typically just a quiet, peaceful day in the woods. Some days I mix it up with a mountain bike ride and sometimes it’s just me, maybe a friend or two, on a big kid easter egg hunt with a tasty payoff.
Thanks to Colin for giving us the lowdown on some low-lying delicacies. To see more of Colin’s work, including his insane mountain bike photography, head to his site or give him a follow on Instagram.