Monday, 29 July 2013

Finding Wild Mushrooms: Tips from Experienced Foragers III

Out in the country with my dad almost 30 years ago (Alberta, Canada)

Our next mushroom forager is Gerald Sylvester, my dad. He is a retired teacher and has been a dedicated mushroom foraging for 7+ years. I have Gerry to thank for cultivating my interest in mushroom picking, an activity we did in the summer in Alberta and Ontario. Here Gerry shared some tips from his mushroom expeditions in Alberta as well as a family favorite recipe "Mushrooms on Toast"; please write any questions for Gerry in the comments section at the end of this post.

Want to learn more about foraging in other regions? Check out these posts from foragers in Washington and Georgia.

1. Can you describe the process of selecting the right mushroom foraging spot in Alberta?

The spot I use was found by accident, I was on a camping weekend with some friends and we went out to Fallen Timber Campground in the Waiporous region north west of Calgary (about 65 kilometers from my house). A family was there going through the campground with a basket picking mushrooms. I followed them and talked to the father. 

There are also foraging spots right in the city of Calgary. A tennis player I know mentioned that there are some morels growing only about two kilometer from my house. He has collected some, but on several foraging attempts, I had no luck finding any.

2. Many people tell me they are afraid to go picking because they don't know how to properly ID edible wild mushrooms. How did you learn to ID edibles?

There are a lot of poisonous mushrooms out there and you have to be very careful. The family I that was picking mushrooms with that day instructed me on 4 or 5 species, but I only remembered two. They were Boletes and Chanterelles. Of these two, I have been more certain with boletes because they are unique once you have become acquainted with them. On the other hand, you have to look carefully with chanterelles because there are false chanterelles that look exactly like the real ones, and the false ones should not be eaten.

King Bolete (Jason Hollinger, wikimedia commons)
3. What kind of permits are required to harvest wild mushrooms in Alberta?

As far as I know, there are no permits required.

4. Not many people forage for their own food, so I'm wondering what are your motivations are to do so?

I have been interested in harvesting wild mushrooms for many years, but have always played it safe and not taken any chances. Since I have had some successes, I am encouraged to continue because it is thrilling to know that one may be able to live from products found in the wild.

The reactions I get from family and friends about harvesting mushrooms vary. Some people would never try wild mushrooms, and don’t want to know anything about them. Others are just as excited as I am. Since my first trip when I learned to I.D. Chanterelles and Boletes, I have continued to forage with friends. As a result I have learned to identify several other species, learned from others. They are: Coral Mushrooms, Hen or Chicken of the Woods, Shaggy Mane, Oyster Mushrooms, along with King Boletes and Chanterelles.

Hen of the Woods (wikimedia commons)
5. What do some of the wild mushrooms you pick in Alberta taste like?

There is a similarity in taste for a lot of wild mushrooms, but then, chanterelles have a distinct aroma that is unique. The texture of a lot of mushrooms are quite similar. Most people fry up the mushrooms, so it is hard to distinguish differences. Boletes have a strong flavor, and may have some effects on you after eating. In a few instances it was the case for me.

My favorite mushroom recipe for wild and common mushrooms is "Mushrooms on Toast"

2 tbs olive oil in a frying pan
1 tbs of butter or margarine.
Fry up all the mushrooms cut into ½ inch halves or quarters depending on the size you have,
Add some more oil and
Add 2 tbs of flour
Start adding water to make a roux continually cooking the mushrooms
Add pepper, possibly cayenne, or half a tbs of a sambal
Onions can be fried along with the mushrooms
Hot peppers can be substituted for the cayenne

You will end up with a thick creamy mushroom sauce that you spoon over a couple pieces of toast. Enjoy!

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Finding Wild Mushrooms: Tips from Experienced Foragers II

Today we have a mushroom foraging post from Sean Sterrett. Sean is an organic farmer, beer brewer, and a PhD Candidate doing research on Turtle Ecology at UGA.  He shares his experiences road cruising for Chanterelles in Georgia as well as a delicious Chanterelle Wine and Cream Sauce recipe; all photographs on the post are Sean's. If you have any questions for him, please write them in the comments section at the end of this post. 

1. Can you describe the process of selecting the right mushroom foraging spot?

I found out quickly that mushroom picking spots were all around me. And they're likely around you too if you're anywhere in the vicinity of a forest. Some of the most productive spots for picking are less than five minutes from my house. The only mushrooms I really spend time looking for (at least for now) are chanterelles (Cantharellus spp.) and morels (Morchella spp.). Both of these mushrooms are found in deciduous forests and often in association with oak, poplar and beech trees (although this is a short list) this is certainly where I focus my search.

Weather and seasonality seem to be just as important as location. You'll see the mushrooms pop up just after significant rain events. For example this summer has been incredibly wet in the southeastern U.S. and chanterelles can even be found on the side of the road in abundance. So, road cruising is effective for both snakes AND edible mushrooms. 

Just like other biota, mushrooms have certain times of year where they are present or "active". I live in Georgia, so the window for finding morels is much shorter compared to the Midwest or Pacific Northwest and limited to early spring.  However, chanterelles can be found for a majority of spring, summer and fall and usually limited by rain. 

A forest floor view of Chanterelles in Georgia

2. Many people tell me they are afraid to go picking because they don't know how to properly ID edible wild mushrooms. How did you learn to ID edibles?

I think everyone should have a healthy respect for mushrooms...I still do which has restricted what I'm willing to pick and eat. I've also heard some rough stories of eating the wrong mushrooms. I used a combination of internet forums and websites, natural history books and the help from friends and family to feel confident in identifying chanterelles and morels when I started picking. I try to depend on diagnostic characteristics to distinguish between targets and non-targets.  It seems like the most confusing mushroom for chanterelles is the Jack-O-Lantern (Omphalotus olearius). While this look-alike wouldn't kill you, the false morel (Gyromitra esculenta), which resembles my favorite mushroom, is potentially deadly and keeps me on my toes when picking and cleaning. I highly recommend the book, Mushrooms Demystified, by David Arora. It's still a new book for me but I've learned quite a bit and it's a book that experienced pickers trust. I'm hoping to expand my mushroom picking interests, but am moving fairly slow...I'm alright with that.  

Morel in Indiana, March 2013
3. What kind of permits are required to harvest wild mushrooms in Georgia?

As far as I know, there are no permits required for mushroom harvest in Georgia. I've been told about permits and limits in other parts of the U.S., but I've never lived somewhere where harvest for personal consumption was regulated.  
Because many mushrooms are associated with the root systems of trees (symbiotic mycorhizal), the edible mushroom are often considered the fruits or flowers of the actual fungus.  So, it's my impression and assumption that harvest is sustainable. I would like to have a conversation with a mycologist to confirm these assumptions. 

4. Not many people forage for their own food, so I'm wondering, what are your motivations are to do so? 

I'm interested in continuing to remember where food comes from. This sounds cliché, but it's fairly easy to buy food at a grocery store and not consider where it originated. I still do.  But, I try to explore how foods are made (processed or originate). All food comes from the ground in one way or another so keeping in mind the HOW, WHEN and WHERE is important to me. One way I keep this in mind is to use both local foods and try to learn the process of making certain foods. There are some exciting hobbies that can sprout from these curiosities. For example, I've been brewing beer the last few years and want to get into brewing ciders and wines, as well as cheese making. In addition to picking wild mushrooms, I'm also interested in learning how to cultivate mushrooms in my backyard. These hobbies are all much easier than most realize.  

Most folks react positively to mushroom foraging and are often envious...because wild mushrooms are both expensive and delicious. So, it's nice to share your pickings and chat about mushrooms whenever given the opportunity.

5. Can you describe some of the unique tastes of the wild mushrooms you pick?

Mushrooms add a significant amount of body and meatiness to any meal. Most people associate chanterelles with an apricot flavour. I've never smelled that but I do get a floral aroma and this is one way you can tell if the mushroom is fresh. Morel mushrooms are embedded into my flavor pallete and are a very memorable part of my childhood. But if asked to describe their flavor, I don't think I have a very descriptive answer. Savory is all that comes to mind. I prefer to enjoy morels lightly dusted in flour and pan-fried in a light mixture of mild olive oil and butter. They are a likely my favorite food that I've come across.  

Chanterelles (Cantharellus sp.)
Chanterelles are a fantastic addition to just about anything, but I have one classical sauce that is especially amazing on pasta or fish:

Chanterelle Wine and Cream Sauce

~3 handfuls of chanterelles (half roughly chopped, half finely chopped)
1/2 cup dry white wine of your choosing (something you would drink).
3/4 cup heavy cream
salt and pepper
smoked paprika

  • Dry saute the chantrelles over medium heat to remove most of the water.
  • Add chopped shallot and garlic along with olive oil and butter, and saute until shallot and garlic are translucent and mushrooms are cooked through (8-10 minutes).  Add paprika to your liking.
  • Add white wine to deglaze pan and reduce alcohol content (couple minutes).
  • Add heavy cream, bring to boil and simmer for 10-15 minutes or until the mushroom flavor has been infused and sauce is thickened. 
  • Finish with chives and salt and pepper to taste

Friday, 19 July 2013

Finding Wild Mushrooms: Tips from Experienced Foragers

Interested in mushroom picking? Not sure how to get started? You are in the right place. In the next series of blog posts, mushroom foragers from different areas of the world have kindly agreed to share their tips. Our first contributor, Abe Lloyd from the Pacific Northwest, provides four of his key harvesting rules and shares an intriguing shrimp mushroom recipe. If you have any questions for him, please write them in the comments section at the end of this post. 

I am an ethnobotanist and the director of Salal, the Cascadian Food Institute in NW Washington. We do plant related contracts for Native American tribes and affiliated non-government organizations as well as research and writing that promotes indigenous food. I also teach college courses in ethnobotany, wild foods, and natural history. I have been studying plants and collecting wild foods for over 20 years and completed a master’s degree in ethnobotany in 2011. Mushrooming is a more recent passion that I took up seriously in 2007. You can read about my foraging adventures and wild food experiments on my Wild Harvest blog.

1. Can you describe the process of selecting the right mushroom foraging spot?

The best way to learn how to identify and find mushrooms is to hunt for them with experts. Most areas have local mushroom societies with regular field trips and guest speakers. 

The first time I went Chanterelle picking I got a tip from my professor about a good spot and went out on my own. I spent an hour walking through the woods before I spotted one, and then I started asking myself why it was growing where it was, and where else the conditions might be similar. At the same time that I was tuning my site criteria, I was also developing a search image for what the Chanterelles looked like, and then it became a real treasure hunt because I started seeing them everywhere! I went home with a basket full of golden Chanterelles and I was hooked. After that, I just tried to find other forest patches with similar aged trees of the same species and I have always done pretty well. I often drive 30-60 minutes out of town and into forest-land for my mushroom picking adventures.

Chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius) Victoria

2. Many people tell me they are afraid to go picking because they don't know how to properly ID edible wild mushrooms. How did you learn to ID edibles?

I mainly learned mushrooms by studying David Arora’s books “All that the Rain Promises” and “Mushrooms Demystified.” While this approach isn’t great for everyone, my experience identifying plants by using dichotomous keys, reading descriptive accounts, and studying photographs transferred easily to mushrooms. However, I held fast by a few simple rules including

a) Never eating a mushroom the first time I identified it.

b) Only eating a mushroom after I am absolutely confident of my identification

c) Limiting my first taste to a small piece that is cooked (but plain) and spitting it out if it tastes bad.

d) Never feeding a mushroom to anyone else until I have tried it myself several times.

I think the best way to learn mushrooms is from a knowledgeable teacher, starting slow and focusing on developing a high level of confidence with a few mushrooms before gradually expanding. While I won’t recommend the internet as a replacement to a good field guide, there are a few websites with features that allow you to submit photographs to a network of mushroom experts who will identify the photograph (provided it is clear enough).

3. Are there certain mushroom families/species you don't pick because ID'ing them is too tough? 

I still don’t eat Amanitas because that group contains some of the deadliest mushrooms and I don’t see enough variety to develop more confidence in my Amanita identification.

4. What kind of rules or permits exist for wild mushroom picking in your area? 

I have compiled a list of rules related to foraging mushrooms (and other edibles) in all the major land management jurisdictions throughout the Pacific Northwest on my blog. Usually mushroom societies have a hand out or webpage with mushroom picking rules.

5. Not many people forage for their own food, can you describe some of your motivations to do so?  

Primarily I forage because it is a great way to be outside. When you are harvesting mushrooms or berries your senses are alive and you experience nature in a deeper way than the casual walker. I’ve never seen a mushroom picker wearing headphones! Eating wild foods is also about the healthiest and most sustainable thing you can do (provided that you don’t have to drive too far to harvest them). Wild foods generally have twice the micronutrients of their cultivated analogues and they grow in polycultures of native plants that require little in the way of inputs and little to no soil disturbance. Our grain based industrial agricultural economy on the other hand is totally the opposite and can be linked with all the major environmental problems.

6. Can you describe some of the unique tastes of the wild mushrooms you pick? 

Like the name suggests, the Shrimp Russula (Russula xerampelina) has a shrimp or crab-like flavor and nice firm texture that works well in omelets. 

  Shrimp Mushroom (Russula xeramperlina) Chucanut Mt.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Why I Choose Pesticide-free Foods: Lessons from Costa Rica

I know what happens when a craving inhibits our capacity to engage in sustainability economics and it is not always pretty. That said, a few recent life-experiences have forced me to put more thought into grocery shopping, whether I’m having a craving or not. Here, I've shared the experiences that taught me why choosing pesticide-free food is the only choice for my health, that of farmers, and of our ecosystems.
Malanga root on the left
My first serious thoughts about eating pesticide-free meals came when I visited a friend's organic farm in Costa Rica. Nuria grows everything from rice and beans to heart of palm and malanga. The farm's location is equally as unique as the foods grown there; on one side it borders protected areas - including Tortuguero National Park - and on the other side it borders a sea of pesticide-laden banana and papaya plantations.

Whenever I travel the road and approach her farm, I am always surprised at the stark changes in the landscape. The journey is not so scenic when I begin near the agricultural town of Guapiles. Mile after mile, all I can see are fields crowded with banana trees and littered with blue plastic. There is no wildlife in sight and the only farmers I can see are covered in hooded spray suits, these so-called banana farmer uniforms are necessary to protect them from the harmful chemicals that are sprayed on the acres and acres of fruits. Fruits destined for our grocery stores for us to buy and eat. As I get closer to Nuria’s farm, forest patches begin to break up the monotonous agricultural landscape. Wildlife and humans freely visit her crops, and this time no hooded spray suits are required.
Organic papaya tree, note rainforest in the background
Upon arrival, I am always greeted with fresh fruit, and if I’m lucky it is organic papaya. Nuria has to pick these fruits while they are still a little green because otherwise the toucans will devour them before she has the chance to harvest them. My first papaya was unforgettable, for the taste but also the story behind it.
Papaya thief
Nuria’s story began with a question, Did you know that I have a friend that works on a papaya farm yet always buys papayas from me? When I asked why he would not simply purchase the fruits from the farm where he works, she told me that he did not want them. In fact, this fellow had sworn to never eat a single papaya from his work because the plantations were laden with pesticides. He told her that anyone who has felt their nose burn and their chest tighten as they inhale pesticides would be a fool to eat a fruit smothered in them. He also told her that anyone who has seen farm workers suffer health complications as a result of their work, anyone who has seen young children living near these plantations with unexplained health issues, would be a fool to eat those papayas. I asked myself silently, if papaya farmers won't eat their papayas, why should I purchase them?

I took a minute to think. Only two years back, I had come to Costa Rica excited about eating papayas and tropical fruit salads. I'd been told by other Canadians that Costa Rican papayas were more colourful, softer, and sweeter than any papaya I would find in Canadian grocery stores. Nobody in Canada talked to me about making sure they were organic. So two years ago, oblivious to the differences between organic and conventional products, I bought the latter.

 On my friend’s organic farm, I began to see the real costs of being naive about where my food came from. These were not only costs to my health but to that of others, that of fathers, mothers, and children who have little say in what pesticides are used at their work or near their homes.

My papaya story was not the first I heard of its kind, unfortunately. A year later but still in Costa Rica, I was working as a teaching assistant for a tropical biology course that traveled throughout the country Although we spent most of our time at field stations, I occasionally found myself wandering away to talk to farmers that lived in whatever area we happened to be visiting.

While in Guanacaste, near Palo Verde Biological Station, I met up with a rice farmer. Rice is an important crop in Costa Rica because it is part of their signature meal, gallo pinto. We talked about rice farming, local food, and Coyol palm wine. He was quick to volunteer that he was out of work because of his health: he had cancer. I felt my heart grow heavy. Because I was familiar with the heavy pesticide use in Guanacaste's rice farms, I suspected this had something to do with his condition. I found out that he shared my suspicion. He told me that cancer, as well as other unexplained health conditions, were common among rice-farmers in Guanacaste. He told me that the farmers of the area knew that the pesticides they were using were causing them health problems but what was a small farmer to do when they had a family to support and an increasingly globalized market eliminated opportunities for diverse farming practices?

After showing me some of the lesions he had on his body (and emphasizing that I could not leave Guanacaste with out trying locally-roasted Iguana), we parted ways. On my stroll back to the field station, I was reminded of a few conversations I had with a couple river gold-miners in the Peruvian Amazon a few years previously. Instead of pesticides the gold miners' poison was mercury. They showed me the ways mercury can burn your skin, kill a rivers' fish, and eat away at the health of their children, who have no choice but to drink the mercury-contaminated river water. Just as the papaya and rice farmers, these people knew the danger of these chemicals but did not have the choice to work without them.

Writing this essay brings back the same bone-chilling feelings I had when I was told these stories. The difference now is that I cannot claim the same naiveté as I did when I moved to Costa Rica. The burden of knowing, as some people would put it, seems so small in comparison of the burden that farmers bear because they have no real institutional support to rid their lives of these chemicals. Let's face it, if we buy fruits grown with harmful pesticides, then companies will continue using them and governments will continue to allow them.

I understand we do not all have the privilege to eat organic because it can be expensive and out of reach to many. But, for those of you like me with a choice, opting for pesticide-free is an important one. It is a choice for healthy people and healthy ecosystems. It is a choice to pressure governments and companies to honour the basic human rights to a life free of harmful chemicals.

Want to eat organic in Costa Rica? Check out the Feria Verde in Aranajuez, San Jose, it is one of my favourite markets.

More on plantation pesticide use in Costa Rica: 

van Wendel de Joode B, Barraza D, Ruepert C, Mora AM, Córdoba L, Oberg M, Wesseling C, Mergler D, & Lindh CH (2012). Indigenous children living nearby plantations with chlorpyrifos-treated bags have elevated 3,5,6-trichloro-2-pyridinol (TCPy) urinary concentrations. Environmental research, 117, 17-26 PMID: 22749112

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Cultural Uses of Coconuts in Zanzibar

I welcome a guest post from Sarah Halpern; at the end of the post is a beautiful photo journey of how Zanzibari people craft rope out of coconuts. 

My name is Sarah Halpern and I live in Charleston, South Carolina.  I work for the International Society of Ethnobiology.  I recently spent time studying the coconut palm in Zanzibar, Tanzania.

While traveling throughout Zanzibar, I quickly realized that much of the economy and tradition of the area relies heavily on the coconut palm. It is the most sustainable tree in the world. The coconut palm is used in almost every occupation, domestic uses, cooking, and various traditions.  My study took place primarily in the Northwestern Region of Unguja Island in Zanzibar in the villages of Mangapwani, Bumbwini, Fujoni, and Zingwezingwe.

There are disputes concerning how the coconut palm arrived in East Africa. It is believed to have originated in the Southwest Pacific and introduced in Madagascar by sailors in the 1st century AD.  It is also speculated that it was brought to Zanzibar by Arab traders and other sea faring travelers for sustenance and commercial use. Both travelers and locals have been utilizing the sweet, naturally desalinated, and uncontaminated drinking water of a coconut in the tropics for centuries. Additionally, many wild species have been found on the fringes of the Indian and Pacific Oceans implying that the tree could very well be indigenous to East Africa.  This particular idea is supported in “Perplus of the Erythraean Sea,” written in 60 AD, in which Perplus mentions the town of Rhapta, located off of the coast of present day Tanzania, where coconuts were used for trade.The name of the town, derived from the Greek/Arab word “to sew,” came about because the Arab boats were sewn together using coconut fibers.  In fact, the entire ship, the hull, masts, ropes, stitches, and even sails, was once made entirely from coconut products.  

In Zanzibari tradition, various parts of the coconut are used throughout one’s life cycle.  At the very beginning of life, a new born is blessed with coconut oil to ask God for blessings and property.  Throughout life, coconut leaves are used to make fences for various celebrations, such as weddings.  And finally, the coconut water is used to cleanse corpses before burial.

One of the most profitable professions in Zanzibar is the ownership of a shamba, an area of land covered by coconut palms.  This profession is acquired by Islamic Laws of Inheritance, meaning mostly by men. The men are responsible for hiring people to harvest the coconuts, which are then sold to various markets. Harvesting is done by using small ropes to climb the trees and cut down the fruit.They are known for singing a song about strength while climbing.  I found that most of the shamba owners in that area did little to no planting of trees on their land. 

Stonetown, the main port city of Zanzibar, is also known for its elaborate wooden doors made from the wood of the coconut palm. Therefore, carpentry is a traditional profession, passed down usually within the family. The leftover wood from the carpenters is usually used to make limestone, which can be used for building and painting.

Another traditional practice by men in Zanzibar is the domestic handicraft of upawa (seen below), a spoonlike creation used for cooking.  The coconut palm plays a large role in cooking in general as well.  The coconut is a staple in Swahili diet. It is considered the “soul food of the tropics.” The coconut palm is also used in the actual cooking process.  Trunk and coconut husks are collected and used as fuel, fish is often placed on folded coconut leaves, nyaliyo, rather than directly over a fire, in order to obtain more flavor and to prevent the fish from burning.  The stem of the leaf can be used as a stake to hold fish and vegetables over a fire as well. The leaves from the tree were once very helpful in drying out cassava, however this is not practiced anymore because whole palm leaves are more difficult to find.

The coconut and other parts of the tree are commonly used in recipes. Shredding the coconut meat, mixing with water, and straining multiple times make coconut milk, which is combined with many main courses. Coconut milk can also functions as a replacement for oil because of its high fat content. Kitale, the white coconut leaf bud is eaten like a vegetable and mixed into salads. Mbata, an overripe coconut, is also eaten as a delicious snack. Mbata, however, have become more difficult to find because of the overharvesting of coconuts.

A traditional job amongst women in the villages of Zanzibar is the creation of roofing materials for all homes, hotels, and fences. This is a particularly high paying job, however leaves are in constant demand and the profession is becoming more popular, creating a sense of negative competition among women.  

However many women also have taken part in the traditional ways of making rope. This job brings a great amount of pride for women as it is very physical. Women bury the coconut husks for a year in mud covered plains, then dig up the husks and beat them until they are broken down into string. The string is then carried home on large bulks to be twisted into rope. This process is shown below:
 A shamba owner hires a man to de-husk the coconuts from his land.

 An elderly member of the village makes a living by using a small piece of rope to climb trees 30-40 ft high to cut down the coconuts.
Upawa - a spoon like tool made from various parts of the coconut.  Made by men, but used more so by women in the Zanzibari kitchen.
A Zanzibari woman digging up her coconut husks from the "desert."  This is the first part of the rope making process, a profession done by women.  The husks are left to soak in the mud for a year to soften.

This is the second part of the rope making process where women beat out the soften husks into thin string.

The final part of the rope making process is done from the home. Women carry back the large piles of string and tie specific types of knots to make strong rope. This rope is used for everything from fishing, packaging, etc.