Bill Jones kneels in a wet pasture and plucks a slender conical mushroom, identifying it as the magical psylocybe.
We are here with the well-known chef hunting for edible fungi - the famous yellow chanterelles and fat local pine mushrooms - and Mr. Jones has proffered a different type of mushroom every 10 minutes during our foray through the forest. But it is this blast from the past that captures everyone's interest, and a dozen heads lean in for a closer look.
"This is the magic mushroom, usually found where cattle graze," he says, pointing out a patch of the tiny tan caps among the dandelions and cow pies in an open field.
The leaf-strewn trails of Vancouver Island's temperate rain forest are a bonanza for the mushroom hunter, but you must know what's what. While there are 30 different kinds of edible mushrooms on the island, the majority of mushrooms Mr. Jones spots with his keen mushroom vision today are poisonous. The hallucinogenic psylocybe falls into the inedible category - but others are seriously deadly - so I'm happy to follow in the expert's footsteps.
Mr. Jones, who hosts mushroom foraging and cooking events at his Deerholme Farm, has literally written the book on the subject: The Savoury Mushroom: Cooking with Wild and Cultivated Mushrooms. He has long been hosting farm-to-table dinners in the cozy 1918 cottage on his acreage outside Duncan. From his open kitchen, he'll teach you all about seasonal B.C. ingredients, sharing recipes and tips on how to prepare them.
But the best part of Mr. Jones's regular food fests is eating, tucking into a locally inspired dinner that is as fine as any restaurant meal, such as Alsatian flatbread with porcinis, smoke-roasted chanterelle salad, or Dungeness crab cakes with Chinese braised wild mushrooms.
In spring, morels feature in Mr. Jones's eclectic cuisine - dishes such as prawn and morel soup with coconut milk and curry paste, or rabbit terrine studded with bacon and morels. But in the fall, it's the mushroom motherlode and this year he is planning several dinners and cooking classes around local fungi.
Today, we veer off into the tangled forest to escape a light drizzle, the canopy dense and the fallen logs thick with moss. It's perfect mushroom habitat. Beneath one towering pine, Jones brushes aside the leaf litter to reveal a golden chanterelle as big as my fist. He reaches down to cut the deeply grooved, vase-shaped fungus near the ground using a small knife, careful not to disturb the fine mycelium beneath the soil that will send up more of these delicious treasures.
We plunk it into our paper bag and pick our way deeper into the shady woods, the beams of late-afternoon sunlight slicing nearly horizontally through the gloom. We trudge along the narrow deer trails for several hours, heads bowed, eyes fixed on the jumble of late-season detritus at our feet. We find - or rather Mr. Jones spots - more yellow chanterelles, and the funnel-shaped Yellow Foot or winter chanterelle, before we return to the cottage for the cooking, and eating, portion of our fungal study.
The open-kitchen counter is piled with fresh specimens still crusted with spruce needles and humus, and the moist, musty scent of the forest hangs in the air. We examine the caps, gills and stems, the spongy pores on the underside of the boletus (a.k.a. porcini or cepe) and the toothy spines of hedgehog mushrooms, then slice open a pine mushroom to search the striated interior for the small worms that like to burrow inside.
After a show-and-tell primer, Mr. Jones slices, sautés and delivers tastes of various specimens to the gathered students. Some are avid "mushroomers," arriving with dog-eared field guides and special tools like mushroom magnifiers and measuring devices. Many are simply curious cooks and outdoor types, keen to know more about the complex world of mycology.
The hike has honed our appetites, and we sip wine from local island winemakers while comparing the flavour and textures of several unique specimens.
The large pine mushroom, or matsutake, is aromatic, spicy and sweet, with firm, dense flesh, prized in Japan and Korea and commanding high prices. The fiery red lobster mushroom is reminiscent of its namesake in both colour and flavour thanks to a symbiotic accident between a mushroom and a parasite. The golden chanterelles offer a whiff of apricot and a peppery finish. The shaggy hedgehog (or yellow tooth) turns up with carrots and honey mushrooms in our soup, and the ruffled cauliflower mushroom is like chewy wide noodles on the plate.
There's no doubt that this is one of the best entrees into the burgeoning Cowichan Valley food community - a chance to taste the finest local food in the land, along with some fascinating company. It's a magical little place - and it's not just the mushrooms.
Special to The Globe and Mail
For more about Deerholme Farm cooking classes and tours, go to www.magnorth.bc.ca.
Mushroom lovers, check out the Sooke Harbour House mushroom blog: www.sookeharbourhouse.com/category/mushrooms/