When I read Michael Pollan's book Omnivore's Dilemma a few years ago, the chapter on foraging for mushrooms in the forest didn't capture my imagination like the other chapters on farming. At the time, there was a default mechanism in my mind that believed harvesting wild mushrooms was a foolhardy venture that ended with a sojourn on the list of people in the region requiring liver transplants. Since then some trusted friends have slowly chipped away at my fears and misunderstandings to the point where wildcrafting for food in the forest has now fully captured my attention. I can't wait for Spring when morels will start popping up from the soil.
Northwest Food News has a story up today about the rising interest in foraging among the local food crowd. There are some folks pulling together a network of small forest plots for harvesting. The article notes that foraging can be big business:
Hanson says the most successful forest-to-table business in the region seems to be a Seattle-based company called Foraged & Found. It gets permits to forage on public and private timberland. The company’s founder says his formula for success is a minimum parcel size of four to five thousand acres.
One of the hidden treasures of the Inland Northwest are the Inland Empire Paper lands that are open for the public to get a permit for the purposes of wildcrafting. I feel a special connection to that because IEP is located two blocks from my office. In fact I can see the plume of steam coming out of the mill from my office window and hear their loud whistles signaling morning, noon, and midday from my home.
One cultural observation I have is that foraging has a much larger role in non-American cultures. In the INW it's the Eastern Europeans and Asians that dominate the wildcrafting scene. I suspect that most cultures around the world have a much more vibrant history and tradition of foraging. For example there was this article about 18 people dying a matter of weeks in Italy from harvesting mushrooms;
According to Italy's La Repubblica newspaper, mushroom seekers have been so relentless in their pursuit of their favorite fungi, they have been abandoning safety procedures -- donning camouflage and hunting in darkness in an effort to scout remote, highly-coveted troves, Reuters reported.
"There is too much carelessness," Gino Comelli, head of the Alpine rescue service in northwest Italy's Valle di Fassa, is quoted as saying. "Too many people don't give a darn about the right rules and unfortunately this is the result."
Eighteen people have died in just a 10-day period. Many of them had forgone proper footwear, clothing and equipment and died after steep falls down Alpine slopes.
Getting geared up in camo looking for mushrooms? I suppose hunting season might be the American equivalent to this Italian phenomenon, but in my mind, the lack of a foraging tradition in the US is yet another sign that the American food culture is far more disconnected from the land and the ryhthms of the seasons than most. It's a tradition that I'm glad to see making a comeback.
If you live in the Inland Northwest and are interested in learning more you might want to consider membership in the Spokane Mushroom Club.
picture: Noel and Lily holding some monster tooth mushrooms harvested from 20 feet up in trees.