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Lorne Terry shows off $130 worth of dried mushrooms. (Ian Brown for The Globe and Mail/Ian Brown for The Globe and Mail)
Lorne Terry shows off $130 worth of dried mushrooms. (Ian Brown for The Globe and Mail/Ian Brown for The Globe and Mail)

Ian Brown Eats Canada

Mushroom-gathering isn't just a walk in the woods Add to ...

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.

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