There was a single yellow-orange chanterelle mushroom on my plate of charcuterie in Souleio, a fine-food joint and restaurant in Saskatoon.
It looked like a little chef's toque. It was from last summer's crop, and so had been frozen and thawed, and had a peppery, apricot-ish, slightly sour and pissy taste - but really good piss.
It was my first chanterelle. I wanted to name it. Suzie, perhaps. I wanted to know everything about it.
It turns out Suzie was picked by Lorne Terry, or if not by Lorne, by Lois, his wife. The Terrys live in White Fox, Sask., a couple of hours northeast of Prince Albert (once home to John Diefenbaker, who resembled a chanterelle).The Terrys make the best part of their living foraging in the forests of Northern Saskatchewan, which, as of this weekend, produce what chefs all over North America agree are the world's best chanterelles.
A mushroom off the forest floor in tiny White Fox can easily end up on a plate at a world-renowned restaurant such as French Laundry in California. Northern Saskatchewan is the North American starting point of the multimillion-dollar international wild-mushroom game.
Which is the reason I was in White Fox, wandering though the forest with Lorne and Lois, and why a few words of respect for the mosquitoes in Northern Saskatchewan are in order. They are an effing nightmare. They inhabit the forests where chanterelles, morels, wild blueberries, fiddleheads, wild strawberries and Labrador tea, a shrub used to make herbal tea (all of which Lorne harvests), are most often found. Saskatchewan mosquitoes are not even like the rampaging drunken bullies that swarm the doorways of Winnipeg. Comparing the skeeters of the Peg to the Hunnish bugs of Northern Saskatchewan is like comparing a playgroup of four-year-olds to the Albanian mafia. A popular spectator sport in June in Northern Saskatchewan, especially before the Roughriders start their season, is to sit in the bar and watch people get out of their cars and literally run for cover with their arms flapping around their heads.
But not Lorne Terry, champion forager. "I've been out in the woods so long," he says, "I just don't notice them any more." Maybe he's too busy. Last summer, he personally shipped 18,000 pounds of chanterelles out of his garage, Suzie included.
WANDERING IN THE WOODS
A forager has to know his country. Lorne Terry's grandfather homesteaded in White Fox in 1924 after driving up from Washington state in a Model T Ford with five kids in the back seat and a dog on the running board. (The dog fell off a lot on corners.)
The grandfather was a trapper and hunter. His son became a conservation officer. His grandson - that'd be Lorne - mined in Uranium City and for 15 years ran a hotel north of the Arctic Circle on the Dempster Highway. "White Fox is a big enough centre for me," Lorne said. "Even today, 20 people in a room is a lot for me."
Hence his fondness for wandering the woods with Lois. In the late 1990s, as he contemplated retirement (they're 67 and 63), Lorne heard that a neighbour had earned $400 picking mushrooms. He decided to investigate. Lorne's the deliberate type - calm, sturdy, medium-sized, tanned, balding, thus bearing some resemblance to a large cremini. Many of us do.
His operation, White Fox Gold Harvesting, now forages full-tilt all summer. "The first thing that comes in is fiddleheads," he told me. "We usually get two weeks in fiddleheads, but this year we only got five days. It quit raining and turned hot."
He and Lois harvested 50 pounds anyway, worth $9 a pound delivered to smarter restaurants in Saskatoon and Regina. "The ideal of fiddleheads is below 4 to 6 inches high. And if you miss that one day, they're too big." Lorne figures he could harvest 10,000 pounds of ferns every spring, but they're an eastern delicacy, and so far almost unknown in Saskatchewan. Finding pickers is another problem. "I call 'em two weeks ahead. And then the day before, I get a call from one of them, 'No, I have to move a desk. I'll come tomorrow.' Well, that's too late. Fiddleheads are that touchy."
After fiddleheads, it's morels, the rooty luxury mushroom. Morels are less common in Saskatchewan than they are in B.C., where the combination of last summer's fires and this spring's rains will produce a bumper crop. Alas, the euro's down 30 per cent, which has slashed European demand. These are things foragers in White Fox think about.
Ian Brown eats Canada
"What we're waiting for now is chanterelles," Lorne explained, and I have to say he seemed a bit impatient. Saskatoon had just been visited by golf-ball-sized hail.
The chanterelle season in North Saskatchewan began this week. Lorne and Lois now spend hours every day on their hands and knees in the forest, slicing chanterelles with their knives and dropping them into aerated one-gallon ice-cream pails. The holes in the bucket spread spores for new growth, and matter more than whether you pull the mushrooms up by the roots or cut them with a knife (a perennial forager debate; Lorne and Lois cut). Chanterelles like an open pine and birch forest without much underbrush, and lots of white caribou moss instead. The moss carpets the green and orange forest floor like frosting. When the orange chanterelles are up, they look like fire spreading across cream, like rogue dreams rising.
By now we were making our way through 36 square miles of quiet, churchy mushroom forest. "Chanterelles like it clear," Lorne said. "That's here. It's different in B.C."
Chanterelles from wetter zones are larger and less plate-friendly than Northern Saskatchewan's - which are "the best chanterelles," according to Peter MacLeod of Sunshine Foragers, a Vancouver mushroom brokerage. "Perfect loonie or toonie size, perfect texture. Chefs just love 'em. By the time you get to sautéing West Coast chanterelles, they've lost a lot of volume." Brokers will pay three times as much for Saskatchewan's stylish knobs.
Not only does a forager have to know the country, he has to pretend he doesn't. "People follow us," Lois explained. She's thin, shy, spry. "Well, it's money." The pair often take bikes and a picnic in their truck, and double back from where they park. "People figure that's where we're picking, so they won't follow us. Oh, it's sneaky," Lois admitted.
"Most of the time," Lorne added, "Lois and I, we're pickin', oh, 35 to 40 pounds a day. And if we get a really good area, we can do 100 pounds easily."
Sometimes they go out for a few hours after supper, to pick in the long northern evenings. It seems to be a way they spend time together. Chanterelles grow in clusters: One good patch can yield a pound and a half. "Chanterelles, they say they don't come up in the same place," Lorne told me, "but they come up pretty close." He can repick the same patch three days later. Some spots have lasted 10 years.
By the time Lorne and Lois get home at 5 p.m., a line of pickers has often formed in front of the weigh scale set up in his garage. Behind the table, next to $5,000 worth of dried mushrooms in boxes, is the mushroom cleaner - an angled, edged board covered with a tan blanket that funnels down into a shipping basket. There can be other mushroom brokers lined up down the lane.
In addition to the 3,000 pounds of chanterelles he and Lois pick and sell to their customers in Saskatoon, at $8 a pound, Lorne buys from other pickers. He pays $5 a pound, a lot more than the big brokers who offer $3 "and $2 if you let them." He also purchases for Sunshine's Mr. MacLeod, at a commission of 50 cents per pound. Mr. MacLeod advances Lorne as much as $50,000 a summer to buy mushrooms. "There was one night we sold him $1,000 worth in one hour," Lorne said, shaking his head in disbelief at the money under his feet. "And I've never met the man."
But mushroom madness demands discipline. "There are people, we know some of them up in La Ronge," Lois told me, "who are into a lot of money with the mushroom broker. Because they didn't use the money to buy mushrooms, but went to the casino instead."
Does all this not seem astonishing? Every two and a half days, Lorne carts up to a ton of chanterelles, for three hours, in his pickup to Saskatoon and thence to Regina and Vancouver by bus and WestJet.
LUXURY ITEM IN A FUNGI FORM
It's interesting math: $2 a pound on the forest floor, $8 a pound delivered to chefs in local restaurants, and way, way more in the hands of specialty mushroom suppliers such as Vancouver's Mikuni Wild Harvest, operated by Tyler Gray. Mr. Gray is a regular on the Food Network and supplier of fungi and other fetishy fare to the likes of Daniel Boulud and Mario Batali in New York and Tojo's in Vancouver. At Whole Foods, chanterelles from Northern Saskatchewan are selling for $40 a pound.
All this from a business that began as an afterthought, when West Coast fish wholesalers realized the Japanese would buy mushrooms too.
Foragers like Lorne Terry wonder why they aren't seeing more money. "There's a few big buyers in the country," Peter MacLeod explained. "And there's a feeling in the bush that they're carteling the price." Or as Lorne put it, "We know that the mushrooms that come from Northern Saskatchewan are the best mushrooms in the world. So they're worth a lot more than $3 a pound."
"Last year, I sent to Vancouver 18,000 pounds - nine tons," he continued. "I would say Lois and I harvested 3,000 pounds more." He figures foraging can put $30,000 in his pocket in a good summer - all for a walk in the woods. And in an area where unemployment is 30 per cent, chanterelles are a huge boost. "Last year, I alone put $60,000 into the economy here," Lorne said.
So when a forestry company applied recently for a licence to log the Torch River Provincial Forest where the chanterelles grow, Lorne helped organize a protest. "Once it's cut, there won't be a mushroom come up in that damn strip for 50 years," Lorne explained. "An industry that'll put $60,000 into this depressed economy, and they want to destroy it." He shook his head. "And all they'll get out of it for the province of Saskatchewan is $6,000 in stumpage fees."
But the government of Saskatchewan is also interested in alternate uses for its forests. Lorne won the mushroom forests a three-year reprieve.
In a month, of course, the harvest will be over, and mycological madness will move south and west to B.C., Washington, Oregon and finally down into California. There are still blueberries to pick ($5.50 a pound from Lorne, $8 in the Saskatoon farmers' market), wild strawberries to harvest for jam, high bush cranberries, Labrador tea ($10 a pound) and ground ivy (good for the lungs) - and, of course, the fiddlehead dilemma waiting to be solved.
I could tell he was going to miss it when winter came on. "It's like gold on the ground," he said, but I think he meant that more than one way.