Skip to content

CHEF'S TABLE: On the hunt for 'treasures of the forest'

'I have always had a love and respect for wild foraged foods, but none more than the plethora of wild mushrooms that can be found in the forests and fields that surround us,' says food columnist

I received a special gift and a request from a family friend this week. Our friend, Lisa, gave us a a little treasure and asked that I “do something great with it.”

That gift came in the form of two beautiful specimens of hypomyces lactifluorum, or lobster mushrooms. Their distinctive colour, firm texture and weighty feel make them one of the easier wild mushrooms to identify. It was so generous of Lisa to share her foraged treasure with us and I was excited to get to create something great with it.

I have always had a love and respect for wild foraged foods, but none more than the plethora of wild mushrooms that can be found in the forests and fields that surround us. I’ve come by this interest honestly.

I would have to say it has a lot to do with my grandfather. My Grandpa Earl is someone I have always looked up to. A true man of the woods, his knowledge and stories of the forests, fields and the country life always captured my imagination. He may not have thought it at the time, but the stories he shares of his adventures mushroom picking and hunting would all become a part of who I became as a chef.

In addition to his ability of telling a good tale, the thing I revere most about my grandpa is his love of books. It was his collection that allowed me to explore everything from airplanes and engineering to wilderness survival and homesteading. What better gift could you share with a hungry young mind?

At the farm in his bookcase I found my first Mushroom Hunters Field guide. The beautiful pictures and detailed descriptions of what was hiding in the forests pulled me in and started a hobby that I still enjoy today.

Over the years, I have met many other mycologists (those who study fungi), mycophiles (those who love fungi), mycophagists (those who eat fungi). It seems a natural fit for many of us with an interest in culinary to find ourselves in the company of those who forage.

Coincidentally, my fellow chef technologist at Georgian College, Chef Julien and I both enjoy the hunt for wild mushrooms. Although, I find he has much better luck than I do! He has found an excellent way to combine two of his loves mountain biking and mushroom hunting. He makes some excellent finds biking along many of the paths and trails of the forests in and around Simcoe County. I’ve been lucky to be able to share in some of his great finds as well.

It's important to remember that foraging for wild mushrooms is not without risks. Anyone new to mushrooms should go out with an experienced forager to start. There are local naturalist groups or Facebook groups to find local foragers and foraging workshops to help you gain the knowledge and confidence to be able to identify your finds.

Here in Ontario, we have more than 5,000 species of mushrooms. Some are edible, but others are poisonous.

Mushroom hunting can be an enjoyable and rewarding outdoor activity if done with care and under the guidance of a local mycologist, or someone who's experienced. Some of the more common mushrooms that hunting expeditions will look for are black trumpets, oyster mushrooms and chanterelles.

Many edible mushrooms in Ontario have poisonous lookalikes. Training in mushroom identification is key before bounding off into the forest to gather a feast of fungi. Eating a poisonous mushroom can cause anything from mild gastric upset to, at worst, being potentially deadly for humans.

Unfortunately, there is no simple test that tells you whether a mushroom is edible or poisonous. The only way to be certain is to know exactly what species you’ve got.

As the old saying: "There are old mushroom pickers and there are bold mushroom pickers, but there are no old, bold mushroom pickers."

Foraging in Ontario is restricted to only private land or Crown land where food gathering is permitted. Any type of foraging in provincial parks is illegal to protect local ecosystems, the same applies to most Ontario nature reserves, conservation areas and public parks.

When you are lucky enough to be able to harvest, it's important to do so with sustainability in mind. As interest in self-sufficiency and foraging increases, it’s everyone’s responsibility to ensure that there is enough to go around and that the mushroom populations are not harmed.

A few good rules of thumb are to not take more than you need. If you come across lots of baby mushrooms, let them grow. They are not yet ripe and they haven’t had a chance to spread their spores.

Don’t pick older, over-ripe or bug-damaged mushrooms. These are past their prime and don’t taste good and most likely have some critters buried inside. You are better off to leave them as they are.

The shelf life of fresh mushrooms varies, but most will keep for seven to 10 days. To clean, brush or wipe each mushroom and trim the stem bottom off. For tough stems like shiitake, you can trim the whole stem and use it as a flavour base for stock.

The best way to store your bounty is to place the mushrooms in a porous bag, such as paper, and keep refrigerated. It’s important to remember to cook wild mushrooms and that only cultivated mushrooms should ever be eaten raw.

I’m so glad that Lisa was willing to share her great find with my family. And yes, I did manage to make a decent Asian-inspired stir fry with them, but I think next time it’s a risotto. I’m just going to have to keep an eye out on our next hike.

For a great guide and resources to get you started on the hunt check out Wild Edible Mushrooms of Ontario: A Field Guide by Tom Cervenka Mycological Society of Toronto. More information is available by clicking here.

Happy hunting!

“Mushrooms were the roses in the garden of that unseen world, because the real mushroom plant was underground. The parts you could see — what most people called a mushroom — was just a brief apparition. A cloud flower.” ― Margaret Atwood, The Year of the Flood

Reader Feedback

Daniel Clements

About the Author: Daniel Clements

In his bi-weekly Chef's Table column, Daniel will be looking at everything from local crops and trends in the business to seasonal delights and the local restaurant scene
Read more