Skip to main content
the dish

Mushroom! Mushroom!

The calls ring out from behind mossy tree trunks and between tangles of fallen deadwood in the sun-dappled forest of North Vancouver's Lynn Headwaters Regional Park. Following the excited shouts, Robin Kort scrambles across bracken and parts leafy curtains to help sort the wild edibles from the less desirable caps.

"Cute," the tour guide says as her students preen over a delicate clump of begonia-yellow sulphur tufts sprouting beside a well-trodden trail. "But look at how damaged this area is. The fungus helps the soil recover, but it's toxic."

How about this? Another eager beaver points to a lanky, pale-orange specimen growing under a conifer. "Woolly pine spike," Ms. Kort exclaims, patting the furry top and showing us how the striated stem peels rather than snaps. "Totally edible."

It's that time of year on the West Coast. The rains are about to descend. But for all the gloom with which the impending grey clouds glower, they do at least offer a tasty silver lining: wild mushrooms.

If you, like me, love eating local fungi yet don't have the faintest clue about how to forage the fleshy woodland fruit, plenty of guided forays and festivals for beginners are being held all around British Columbia this month.

Last Sunday, we joined Swallow Tail Tours on its first weekly wild-mushroom ramble of the season. The two-hour excursion started at the rustic BC Mills House with lunch and a basic primer. The chunky paté we were eating was not made from Lynn Valley fungus. Mushroom harvesting is prohibited in provincial parks (although allowed on Crown lands). Thus, on this tour we would only be identifying, not picking.

"There are about 10,000 types of mushrooms in this forest alone," says Ms. Kort, a chef and sommelier who was raised in West Vancouver, hunting and foraging with her "hippie family." Before founding Swallow Tail (a culinary company that does food tours and pop-up restaurants), she studied with a medicinal herbalist in Agassiz, B.C.

"I can only identify about 20 types – the ones you can cook with," Ms. Kort confesses. But like any experienced forager, she knows what to avoid. Only two fatally poisonous mushrooms grow in B.C. – the Death Cap and the Destroying Angel. Both are pure white.

"If in doubt, throw it out," she advises.

Notebooks in hand, our group heads into the bush. Fortunately for us, it rained a few days earlier so the spores are popping up all over. Unfortunately, most are inedible.

What's this? We all gather around a Douglas fir sprouting shelves of discs that are hard as a rock. They're red-belted conks (not the shiny varnished variety, which are used to fight cancer and sell for about $100 an ounce).

And this? The flat, wavy-edged mushroom looks like a russula, but Ms. Kort is not sure. "The stem snaps like chalk and it doesn't have a vulva cap at the bottom. But you don't want to fool around," she warns. "Pink-shrimp russulas are edible. The rosy ones aren't."

Tramping further through the forest, we stumble upon what looks like golden chanterelles. These are false ones. We should be able to tell this because the gills end at the top of the stem. But we can know it is not the real thing, Ms. Kort explains, because chanterelles grow only in old-growth forests.

Finally, we spy a dark reddish-brown admirable bolete. The gills look like sponge-toffee candy and feel as soft as playdough. Boletes are from the same family as the porcini, but taste a bit more delicate and lemony.

"Edible!" Ms. Kort declares as we all burst into satisfied smiles.

Then we find another bolete. And another. They all look the same, but when gently pressed, the gills on this inedible red-pored variety stain blue under our fingerprints. It looks like a home pregnancy test and I feel my hopes flagging. Perhaps this type of foraging should be left to the professionals.

Wild Fungus Forays and Festivals around British Columbia

Swallow Tail Tours: Wild mushroom walking tours in Lynn Canyon, North Vancouver. Every Sunday until mid-November. Tickets, $39 (includes lunch). Shuttle service available from Pacific Central Station.

Deerholme Farm: Cowichan Valley Fall Mushroom Forages, Oct. 6 and 20 in Duncan, B.C. Tickets, $125 (includes guided forage, cooking demo and meal with renowned chef/author Bill Jones.).

Whistler Naturalists Society: Fungus Among Us Mushroom Festival, Oct. 12 and 13. Myrtle Philip School, Whistler, B.C. Weekend passes from $35.

Sunshine Coast Society for the Hunting, Recognition & Observation of Mushrooms (SHROOM): Sunshine Coast Mushroom Festival, Oct. 19 and 20. Community Hall, Madeira Park, B.C. Admission, $3 ($90 for wine-pairing dinner).

Vancouver Mycological Society: Vancouver Mushroom Show, Oct. 28. Van Dusen Botanical Garden, Vancouver. Admission, $3.