By Bill Chapman —
As the snow of another stubborn winter finally recedes, one cry that won’t be heard across the Cariboo is, “Time to watch for the snowbank mushrooms,” or “Hark, morel mushroom season fast approaches; find the baskets!”
Sadly these are not common thoughts in spring in the Cariboo and more is the pity because the Cariboo is rich in mushroom bounty. It is hard to say why some communities are mushroom-mad and others are indifferent. Some blame it on the British Isles. Only the people from the British Isles are singularly mushroom- indifferent. However, the Quebecois seem to have very little indigenous longing for fungi while their compatriots in France have become quite mushroom-mad. On the other hand, populations rich in Ukrainians, Italians, Chinese, or Germans are all likely to have a thriving subculture of mushroom devotees.
So what are mushrooms anyway? For a long time they were considered non-photosynthetic, though clearly
very strange, plants. Modern genetic research shows fungi are more closely related to animals than plants and most scientists now consider them to belong to a kingdom all of their own. We only think of mushrooms when we see them dancing on our lawns; but in fact, they have very rich, complex, other lives that go on mainly out of sight. In a typical Cariboo forest there will be many more species of fungi at work or play than there will be plants and animals put together. The shy fungus spends most of its life in the ground or in some other hidden place and the mushrooms we see are like the apples on a tree, a
structure for the most part designed to be eaten to ensure the propagation of the species. So, shouldn’t we oblige?
What do fungi do in their secret places? Fungi have a bad rap for causing diseases, but that is only the first (and least) of the three major roles they play. Their second role is as decomposers. While bacteria also decompose, fungi are masters at worming their way into hard places to break down the toughest of customers. Without fungi, it is safe to say we would be up to our eyeballs in leaves, branches, and much of the other detritus that finds its way to the ground. By decomposing, fungi not only keep us from drowning in litter, but they free up nutrients to allow plants to continue the cycle of life.
The third role of fungi is the one for which they get critical acclaim, but alas, it is a role of which the public is scarcely aware. Almost all the plants we see around us, including those we eat, are dependent upon fungi to take up nutrients and water to help the plant grow. The fungi are connected into plant roots through special structures called mycorrhizae, which just means fungus root. Fossil records show that fungi have been working with plants ever since the first plants appeared on land. In return for nutrients and moisture, the plant feeds the fungus with carbohydrates.
Some of our biggest and best eating mushrooms are so called mycorrhizal fungi and they grow so big because the tree under which they are growing is probably feeding them to make sure they are fat and healthy.
So, the mushroom is much like the Shmoo of L’il Abner fame (Google it), a creature who wants to be eaten. I have to qualify that by saying while most mushrooms want to be eaten, not all of them want to be eaten by you. Therefore, it is really important to know which mushroom you are eating and whether or not it is compatible with your digestive tract.
So, if the mushrooms want to be eaten, how do they attract their customers? Well, for one thing, many mushrooms are delicious. If you have only eaten store-bought mushrooms you might be forgiven for thinking that delicious is an overstatement. However, the wild mushroom is to the store mushroom as the huckleberry is to the cultivated blueberry. While both are good, the wild one is by far the richer cousin. Mushrooms are particularly rich in the newest taste sensation that is called umami. Umami refers to the taste of amino acids (protein). There are people who crave sweets and others who crave salt or fat. Those people out picking mushrooms are likely to be the sort who can rhapsodize equally over a good chicken stock as much as a basket of May mushrooms. Both are rich in umami.
Mushrooms are also good for us. As the umami flavour would suggest, they are high in protein. They are also high in various vitamins and carbohydrates, but not in fat. There has been a vicious rumour going around for years that mushrooms are low in food value, which is categorically not true. Somebody just made that up to justify their fungophobia.
However, saying mushrooms are good for you is like saying plants are good for you: some are more so than others, and maybe some are not so at all. Remember, there are more kinds of mushrooms out there than there are plants and it would be a bit much to expect that they are all designed for you. There is one obscure kind of mushroom that grows in the Cariboo called the truffle, which epitomizes this duality. Truffles are funny little underground mushrooms that are specifically designed to be eaten by squirrels and other creatures who don’t mind a little dirt on their food. The thing about truffles is that they tend to be overpowering in their aromas. Those aromas take some people to culinary heaven while they remind others of the sneakers on their teenage son. There is no accounting for taste.
Mushroom season is fast approaching. There is a world of wild culinary delight waiting for those willing to learn some of the secrets of mushrooming. In the past the Scout Island Nature Centre has hosted mushroom forays and the Williams Lake Recreation Centre is sponsoring a foray this summer. Denise Skarra has the details. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are interested in exploring the intriguing and delicious world of mushrooms, find a mentor to set you safely on this lifelong journey of discovery.
Bill and his family have lived in Williams Lake since 1992. They are frequently the only mushrooms pickers to be seen on the vast landscapes of the Cariboo-Chilcotin. Bill learned to pick mushrooms at his mother’s knee and Bill and Louisa’s kids all started picking mushrooms while still in diapers.