This was first published in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix on August 22, 2005.
One of the mysteries of my childhood was the mushroom. Primarily, mushrooms came in a can and I was not too fond of their rubbery gray texture. But every now and then, my dad would come into the kitchen with a handful of fresh brown mushrooms he had just picked in the farmyard. They smelled so wonderful cooked in butter, and he took great pleasure in eating them.
I did not enjoy them due to the simple fact that my mother forbade it. While she was reluctantly resigned to losing her husband to a poisonous mushroom, she was certainly not going to expose her children to a similar fate. I never learned where they grew or how to identify them. As far as I knew, every wild mushroom was a potential killer and best left underfoot.
As an adult, I had been quite happy to buy mushrooms in the grocery store – until now. Since April, I have been supplying my diet almost exclusively with foods produced in Saskatchewan. If I wanted to eat mushrooms, I would have to find a local source.
Fortunately, Saskatchewan’s forests are teaming with edible mushrooms. Some are among the most prized mushrooms in the world, where they sell for top dollar in foreign grocery stores. Unfortunately, they rarely make an appearance in our own groceries. Why? Perhaps because we are unaccustomed to cooking with a wrinkled morel or an orangey chanterelle. Perhaps there’s more money in selling a pine mushroom in Japan for $100 a pound.
Since I am a) thrifty, b) willing to try something new and c) a pretty good picker, I decided to go into the forest and collect the mushrooms myself. I needed a guide so I called Gerry Ivanochko, the mushroom specialist at Saskatchewan Agriculture in La Ronge. Gerry is studying the potential for selling wild Saskatchewan mushrooms to the world – Is it more profitable to cut the pine trees for things like fence posts, or leave the trees and harvest the mushrooms that grow underneath?
Armed with some buckets and a knife, Gerry led me and my friend David, also an avid picker, into the Jack Pine forest where the ground is covered with soft reindeer moss and dotted with mushrooms of various kinds.
"None of these mushrooms will kill you," Gerry assured us. "But some of them might make you sick."
Before long I was on my hands and knees cutting a young chanterelle out of the moss. The chanterelle mushroom is prized in European cooking for its lovely apricot colour and great taste. We also collected pine mushrooms, which are harder to spot on the forest floor. In Japan and Korea, they are considered a great delicacy imparting manly vigor, longevity and good health.
In spring, especially a year or two after a forest fire, morel mushrooms are picked in abundance. Gerry says the wild mushroom business brings about $1 million into Saskatchewan every year, but there’s potential for at least five times that.
Along a gravel road through the forest, a buyer has set up a tent to purchase the mushrooms directly from pickers. According to our guide, some of these mushrooms will be on dinner tables half way around the world in just a few days. It took a lot less time to reach my dinner table! This pasta recipe is good with any edible mushroom, but of course, I like it best with chanterelles I just picked myself.
You might check the stores for dried Saskatchewan morels, which are being packaged and sold by Northern Lights Foods of La Ronge. For more mushroom recipes, check my food website at homefordinner.blogspot.com.
PASTA WITH CHANTERLLE MUSHROOMS
Melt 1T of butter in a saucepan and sauté 2 chopped shallots until soft. Add 1 pound of sliced mushrooms and cook until the liquid evaporates. Add 1T lemon juice and 2T port (or other sweet wine). Bubble a few minutes and add 1 cup of cream. Season with salt and pepper. Simmer until the cream thickens, about 10 minutes. Serve warm over fettucini or other cooked pasta.