A Year of Idaho Food collaboration between the Boise Weekly and Boise State Public Radio
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Many cultures, including our own, once considered hunting mushrooms aberrant behavior. They are, after all, a sometimes filthy and occasionally deadly fungus. William Delisle Hay, a 19th Century British mycologist, wrote that a mushroom hunter was often “regarded as a sort of idiot among the lower orders. No fad or hobby is esteemed so contemptible as that of the ‘fungus-hunter’ or ‘toadstool-eater.'”
Undeterred by Victorian-era opinion is Chris Florence, owner of Sweet Valley Organics in Sweet. Florence is a commercial mushroom forager, mushroom advocate, farmer and vendor at Capital City Public Market. Recently he led a half dozen chefs and restaurant types on a search for morels and other edible mushrooms in the mountains north of Boise.
“You want to go really slow,” Florence whispered, as if not to scare the mushrooms. “You’ll walk past 100 before you see them.”
A fellow fungus-hunter whispered back.
“Are they usually hiding under brush?” he asked as we trailed Florence through the pines. Florence simply nodded while keeping his eyes fixed to the ground.
Suddenly, Florence stopped.
“All right,” he said in a full-on outdoor voice that suggested that once the mushrooms are spotted, they’re no longer capable of running away. “I can see some morels now. I’m going to let you guys find them.”
Cameron Lumsden, owner of Boise’s Fork Restaurant, squinted as he kneeled down for a snake-level view of something hiding in the shadows.
“Is that one?” he asked, pointing.
“Yep,” Florence said with a smile. “First mushroom of the day.”
He stepped back to give the others more room to scan the cones and needles on the ground for more morels.
In the 21st century, no wild mushroom is more popular to forage for than the morel. That’s certainly true in Idaho. An easily identified, delicious mushroom that grows in nearly every state, it’s considered a gateway mushroom. In his book, Chanterelle Dreams, Amanita Nightmares, Greg A. Marley wrote, “The morel has become the most widely collected and consumed wild mushroom in America, and because it draws such broad appeal from people in all walks of life, it may represent a change agent, a harbinger of a broader acceptance of wild mushrooms in the United States.”
That’s what Florence hopes. He was first mesmerized by mushrooms as a chef in Northern California.
“I just would get these beautiful mushrooms coming into the restaurant,” he said of his days as chef in places like the Palo Alto branch of Spago. “And I was curious about where they were coming from.”
Curious enough, he said, to become a fungus hunter himself.
“I started out just hobby picking on the weekends and then I got better at it and got more,” Florence said. “A lot of the chefs that I worked with wanted to have them, so it turned into a business.”
After moving back to Idaho and focusing on farming and foraging, Florence saw other area chefs as natural disciples for spreading the mushroom gospel while helping to grow his client base. Hence, this fungal field trip.
After wandering off for a while, Wiley Earl, who worked in both New York and Miami Beach as a chef and now works at Fork, walked back to the group with a childlike grin smeared across his face and several morels cupped in his hands.
“I found some really big, beautiful ones,” he said. “It was a little trifecta of morels right around this boulder.”
Earl said that in the 16 years he has worked in the food business, he’d never gone mushroom hunting. He took a long, woodsy sniff of those dark, honeycombed morels and laughed.
“Wiley Earl’s first morel.”
Travis Levi, a chef at Bardenay in Eagle, had already found a few morels and was trying hard to train his eyes to unearth more.
“It’s kind of a trick to keep your eye tuned to the ground,” he said absentmindedly, scanning the duff from side to side. “Everything just sort of looks the same after awhile.”
His voice trailed off as he raised a finger to his temple in a switch-flipping gesture: “If I could just go bzzzt and get my eyes tuned.”
It’s hard to train your eyes to see an organism that, by nature, lies mostly unseen. The ephemeral, shadowy world of mushrooms cloaks them, as history shows, in an aura of both menace and magic. Some mushrooms glow in the dark or form enchantingly circular “fairy rings.” Others are fatal or purportedly help devotees see God. Nearly all produce an underground network of thread-like mycelia–sometimes miles long–that continually snake and coil, sucking up and secreting nutrients just under foot. The fruiting bodies–in this case the morels these chefs were picking–are the rare above-ground sexual expression of an organism that might weigh tons and spread its gossamer tentacles across acres.
But that mushroom underworld wasn’t what Matt Fuxan of Red Feather and Bittercreek restaurants was concerned with when I crossed his path a little later.
“How are you doing, Matt?” I asked
“I’m doing …” he began with the same distracted, body-snatched voice and ground-scanning manner that everyone seemed to have been infected with. “I got a few,” he continued. “A few morels and one cauliflower-looking one that’s edible, too.” He pushed his basket my way while looking in the opposite direction.
“Oops,” he suddenly said, then twitched to the right. “There’s one. One there, too.” He kept twitching. “Oh, like four.” After dropping to the duff, hungrily cutting his prey off at ground level and putting them with his others, Fuxan focused his eyes on me.
“This is exactly why this is an important experience to have,” Fuxan said. “Foraging and actually learning how mushrooms grow and what’s edible and what’s not, that to me is really important to understanding our food system. Having that opportunity, especially where we live, is just huge.”
Fuxan looked straight up through fir trees that seemed to converge in a quiet epiphany.
“It’s huge for me,” he said.
In those static seconds before he went back to the hunt, Fuxan, like the others, had been turned. They had, as Florence hoped, been mesmerized by morels. They all vowed to put more mushrooms on their menus and therefore became, in the brief span of a morning, what their 19th century ancestors would have feared were “idiots among the lower order.”
What their Victorian-era, mycophobic kin couldn’t have known was just how stunning those mushrooms were going to taste–sauteed with a little butter, garlic, shallot and a good shake of salt and pepper–when the group sat down later for a camp-stove lunch.
Guy Hand is a writer, public radio producer and photographer specializing in food and agriculture.