Getting 'Shroomed: On the Mountain with Oregon's First Family of Fungi

"That's why we call it mushroom hunting, not mushroom picking."
- Jack Czarnecki on the rigors of foraging for mushrooms

The Czarnecki family is well on its way to becoming a mushroom foraging dynasty, with fungi running in their veins the way filaments of mycelia run under the forest floor. In 2012 I was privileged to meet Jack Czarnecki when I interviewed him for a story about Oregon truffles, then just beginning to be recognized as equals to their legendary cousins in France and Italy.

Jack at Joe's on a previous hunt.

Jack, the third generation of this restaurant family, migrated from his native Pennsylvania to Oregon so he could hunt mushrooms year round. Sensing my curiosity about his craft, he subsequently invited me to join him and his compatriots to climb in the legendary Trufflemobile on a hunt for their wiley prey.

Retired from restaurateuring as well as active mushroom hunting, Jack passed on the family's traditions to his sons Chris and Stefan. Chris, a chef, took over ownership of the Joel Palmer House in Dayton, assiduously maintaining its mushroom-centric focus while adding a more contemporary twist to its preparations. Stefan (top photo), who owns wine touring company Black Tie Tours, had announced he was taking a day away from that business to head up to Mt. Hood to hunt mushrooms for the restaurant, and I inquired if he might be able to squeeze in one additional passenger.

Dick Nelson, mushroom maven.

As with his father before him, we arranged to meet at Joe's Donut Shop in Sandy, a requisite stop for foragers to pay obeisance to the mountain gods for a successful hunt as well as a dandy place to get sustenance for what was sure to be a long day of clambering through brush and up and down steeply wooded hillsides. As we set out for the mountain, the shotgun position in the front seat next to Stefan was taken by his dad's longtime mushroom-hunting buddy Dick Nelson, as familiar with the spiderweb of rutted tracks leading to the best spots as was Jack. Much discussion ensued as to which spots might yield the best results, and a general plan was formulated.

White chanterelle emerging.

Our primary goal was to hunt matsutake mushrooms, prized for their distinctive spicy scent as well as their flavorful culinary properties. The "matsies" were just beginning to appear, pushing their way up out of the duff of the forest floor, often no more than a bump in the undergrowth or, at best, a glimpse of white through the needles. Second were porcinis, also considered a seasonal delicacy. Last but not least on the list were white chanterelles, cousins of the more ubiquitous gold-colored variety, and much more abundant than either the matsutakes or porcinis.

An early dusting of snow.

A dusting of snow covered the trees as we headed down the highway past Government Camp, turning off the main road to one of the secret spots euphemistically named for a distinctive feature like The Rocks or The Dock. A few favorite spots yielded a smattering of the targeted fungi, but it was our last stop, an anonymous wooded slope that I'd visited with Jack on a previous trip, that ended up yielding a small bonanza of matsutakes and a plethora of whites.

Fortunately I was with Dick, who would point with his walking stick—actually a mop handle he'd borrowed from his utility closet at home—at a slight mounded lump on the ground, suggesting I should brush aside some needles in case it might disguise a matsutake just popping up. Which it invariably would. These mushrooms need to be dug out in their entirety rather than cut off at the base like the chanterelles, to reveal dusty, dry earth clinging to the base that, along with their distinctive aroma, is a telltale sign.

Dick with his prize "matsi."

All told we gathered more than thirty pounds of mushrooms in five hours, most of which would be going to the Chris at the restaurant, but I was generously allowed to bring a few pounds home to roast and freeze for future dishes where I could relive the smell of the woods on our hunt, the bracing nip in the mountain air, and Dick's beguiling Mona Lisa smile.

Read more about this iconic Oregon family, including links to my articles on Oregon truffles and mushrooms. Top photo courtesy Stefan Czarnecki.

Guest Essay: How To Harvest Wild Onions

Now that spring is on the way, it's time to get out in our fields and forests and bring home some wild goodness. My friend, author Hank Shaw, is an authority on hunting, foraging and cooking all manner of wild things—his four books on those topics are considered definitive guides—and his post on harvesting wild onions is particularly pertinent to this season.

Ramps, wild onions, wild garlic. These are some of our best wild foods come springtime.

Ramps.

More than 100 species of wild alliums call North America home—allium being the genus covering both onions and garlic—but it is the Eastern ramp, Allium tricoccum, that has been all the rage among chefs in recent years. They’ve become so popular I even see chefs here in California using them with abandon; no native ramp grows within 2,000 miles of San Francisco or Los Angeles.

Locavore issues aside, perhaps the trendiest thing about ramps right now is to bemoan their overharvest.

Is this happening? Certainly, in some places. I’ve seen some startling before and after photos. But most professional foragers I know harvest the same patches of ramps every year — and some of these folks have been picking for 30 years. They know, as well as any good farmer, that you don’t eat your seed corn. The sustainability of any bulb, corm, root or rhizome harvest all hinges on how you pick the plant.

Here’s how you do it.

First and foremost, you must find your onions. Ramps are showy onions with large, wide leaves. They’re pretty easy to spot, especially in Eastern woodlands, where they can literally carpet the forest floor for acres. Most wild onions are not so easily located, although one, the invasive three-cornered leek of California and Oregon, A. triquetrum, is almost as gaudy as the ramp.

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Wild onions in situ.

There’s an onion for pretty much every environment, from deserts to forests to streamsides to lawns to high above the treeline in Alpine meadows. My favorite is the dusky onion, A. campanulatum, which is common in the mountains from California to British Columbia.

Onions, being bulb plants, send up grasslike shoots first. This can be as early as January in the Bay Area for the three-cornered leek, to mid-July for Alpine onions. Onions, in general, like to live in large troops: It’s weird to find just one onion.

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A patch of wild onions.

A great many onions have a rosy blush to the base of their stems. But not all. Your nose is your best tool when trying to figure out if that grassy shoot you are looking at is an onion. Anything that looks like an onion that also smells like an onion is an onion. Lots of bulbs, some of them poisonous, can look like an onion, but none will also smell like one, too.

Once you’ve found your onions, look at the patch. Are there only a few onions there? Or does the patch have hundreds or even thousands of plants? If there are only a few, consider moving on. I like to pick patches with at least 100 plants, and preferably patches even larger than that. Regardless, follow these rules when you do decide to pick:

  • Pick only the largest individuals. See the photo on the left above? There are a dozen little onions in that image, and only the largest one is worth picking.
  • Stick and move. Pick that large one and move on. Look for another large one. By doing this, you will scatter your picking activity and leave the patch thinned, without large holes in it.
  • Take only 10 to 20 percent of any given patch. And that 20 percent number is only really for private ground or ground you have a very good idea that no one else knows about. Think about it: If I collect 10 percent of an onion patch, then you come along and take 10 percent, then two other people come… well, we’ve screwed that patch, haven’t we?
  • If you really need some wild onions, but the patch is pretty small, pick one large green leaf from each plant. That’s what I do with my Chinese garlic chives at home and they never appear to really notice it. It’s a good way to get that flavor you crave without digging up the whole plant.

Read the rest of Hank's post to get more suggestions on harvesting these wild bulbs, plus recipes for home use, including pickling!

Wild onion photos by Hank Shaw. Check out Hank's books here.