Two articles in the Gazette Oct.20, 2007-10-20, minus the pictures..

The fun in fungi

Seven-course meal of ... guess what?


The fun in fungi

It's the hunt! Foraging for mushrooms can become something of an obsession

Susan Semenak, The Gazette

Its long, slender stem supporting a snow-white conical cap, amanita virosa pokes up through the moss below silver birch trees.

This wild mushroom, which sprouts prodigiously throughout Quebec, looks a lot like the cultivated button mushrooms at the supermarket.

Its common name, though, is "Destroying Angel."

Eat a single cap and you're dead. It won't happen right away. You'll feel quite fine for a day or so then before vomiting, nausea and diarrhea start. By then, your liver will have been damaged beyond repair.

That's enough to scare most people off wild mushrooms. But this frisson of mystery and danger is what appeals to the boot-clad, basket-toting foragers out there in the woods these days with their guidebooks and their Opinel knives - in search of one last stash before the frost hits. That and the chance to be at one with nature. And, of course, the hope, at the end of a day, of a sauté pan simmering with chanterelles or porcini.

Quebec, as it happens, is wild mushroom heaven-on-Earth, rich as it is in mixed and coniferous forests and maple groves, and blessed with abundant rivers and streams. More than 3,000 species of fungi grow here, in forests, along riversides, in cow fields, on rotten tree stumps and suburban lawns - anywhere there's adequate warmth and moisture and trees of just the right age and condition.

They emerge mostly in summer and fall, with a few species popping up even in winter.

Of those, a dozen or so are highly toxic and/or hallucinogenic, several hundred are edible and only a few dozen "gastronomically interesting," according to Pierre Noël, owner of Mycoboutique on Rachel St. E., a store devoted to the cult of the wild mushroom, stocking everything from fresh, dried and frozen wild mushrooms from as far away as the Yukon, France and Italy, to baskets, brushes, knives and guidebooks. His email list counts 1,000 fellow mushroom enthusiasts.

"Best of all, Quebec has a very low ratio of pickers to mushrooms," enthuses Noël, who first got the bug at his chalet in St. Armand nearly a decade ago when he spotted some shaggy mane, with long frilled caps and greyish stems, growing under his window.

"Only now are we Québécois catching up with the rest of the world when it comes to knowing and loving wild mushrooms. Before, there was no wild-mushroom tradition here, not even among native peoples. It was the Russians, the Ukrainians and Poles, the French, the Italians and later the Asians, who brought mushroom-picking here with them when they immigrated."

In Austria, where Julie Zeitlinger grew up, mushroom-picking is a national obsession, rife with rivalry and secrecy. As a child out with her parents, she learned to always cover her tracks in the woods and spread leaves and moss over the cut mushroom stems to keep them hidden from other foragers.

A biologist, she and her husband, Jeremy Fontana, own Au Diable Vert, a nature preserve in Glen Sutton, in the Eastern Townships, where chanterelles, matsutake and porcini thrive.

Just last week, Zeitlinger slipped on her rubber crocs, grabbed a couple of paper bags and her penknife and headed out into the woods, dappled sun flickering through the treetops. She is, like most mushroom pickers, possessed. "I see mushrooms under trees and along roadsides. Sometimes while I'm driving in my car I'll spot some in somebody's garden and stop to ask if I can pick them."

She's barely out the door and down the driveway when she spots a tall, oval shaggy mane. Just into the woods, she detects yellow-footed autumn chanterelles, which she cuts, being careful not to twist: she doesn't want to damage the organism below.

Every picker develops a search pattern. Zeitlinger scuttles with her head hunched, watching for patterns in the forest floor. Yellow-footed autumn chanterelles prefer moist old wood in a mixed forest. White matsutake thrive at the foot of conifers. Sure enough, she spots a cluster of matsutake - with their distinctive stinky-sock smell and white, bulbous appearance - beneath a stand of hemlocks. They are among 30 varieties she can identify with certainty. (There are thousands more she doesn't know.) The matsutake in her forest were so plentiful this fall that she has placed an ad in a Japanese-language community newspaper in Montreal. In Japan, these meaty mushrooms fetch up to $300 a kilogram, which is just enough to half-fill a shoebox. Here, they sell for as much as $90 a kilo. Nearby, Zeitlinger uncovers a bright red mushroom. Uncertain, she passes it up.

No mushroom-forager worth her spores ever takes a chance. Zeitlinger's cardinal rules: pick what you know, check it in the book; if you can't find it there, throw it out.

Is that a patch of elusive black trumpet? She pulls a handful of what looks like dried leaves from under a patch of moss covered in pine needles. Indeed! Just the other day, she hit the jackpot, bringing back a basket of lactarius and another of matsutake, and a whole lunchbox full of prized boletus. Even after all these years, the thrill of the hunt is still exhilarating.

"When I spot a mushroom, I get so excited I can almost not contain myself. It's like winning a lottery. It's a total high, your endorphins rushing," she says.

Mushrooms are what brought Nancy Hinton and François Brouillard together. She was a chef at L'Eau à la Bouche, Anne Desjardins's renowned restaurant in Ste. Adèle, and he was the free-spirited forager who turned up at the kitchen door bearing cattails and sea asparagus and chanterelles to sell. Now they're a couple - and she's the chef at his restaurant, À la Table des Jardins Sauvages, which specializes in - you guessed it - mushrooms, as well as the other wild things foraged from the woods surrounding the restaurant, in St. Roch de l'Achigan, not far from Joliette.

He has his spots all over Quebec. In July, he heads to his cousin's fishing cabin in Mont Laurier for chanterelles. A week and a half ago, he was in the Charlevoix getting lobster mushrooms from a picker there. On a similar trip a couple of years ago, he stumbled on a patch of puffballs in a field. By the time he was finished picking, he had filled the trunk of his car.

Hinton says she and Brouillard will sometimes be driving along and he'll screech to a halt, bolt out of the car and into a park, a cemetery, even a cow field. Just the other day, he brought home a bowlful of fair ring mushrooms growing in their telltale circle on the lawn in a cemetery in Lachute. (He feigned a graveside prayer when the caretaker eyed him suspiciously.) "It always takes us longer than anybody else to get places," Hinton says, laughing.

Brouillard, who can identify more than 1,000 species of mushrooms, says the best way to learn is in the woods. He has been honing his skills since he was a kid tagging along with his grandmother at the family cottage, on the very spot where his restaurant stands today.

His forays are all-day affairs - out by 7 a.m. and not back before 9 or 10 at night. When the harvest is good, there will be hundreds of pounds of mushrooms to clean and cut and preserve. A bad haul, though, nets barely enough to fill a pint-sized basket. Brouillard's bounty supplies his restaurant kitchen, but also high-end restaurants, including Toqué! and L'Eau à la Bouche in Montreal, and Panache in Quebec City. On a good day, he might make $2,000 - if he were to sell the whole lot. These days, though, he reserves all put 10 per cent of the mushrooms he finds for his own restaurant.

This has not been a great year for wild mushrooms. The summer was too hot. Not enough rain. Many varieties are delayed several weeks; others barely made an appearance. On a recent morning, though, his running shoes wet from the heavy dew, Brouillard had no trouble finding shaggy mane and fairy ring, right on the lawn outside the restaurant. High up in a maple tree nearby grow oyster mushrooms as big as hands. Mushrooms pop up out of nowhere. Where yesterday the ground was bare, this morning lies a mass of full-grown lactarius, bold, shocking orange-coloured.

Even experts don't know much about the fungal world. What we see and eat is the superficial fruit of vast subterranean organisms known as mycelia, which co-exist in delicate balance with other organisms. Their growth depends on a web of weather conditions, chemical combinations and climatic triggers. Picking them doesn't seem to affect the balance as long as the mycelia aren't damaged. "Mushrooms are a mystery," says Brouillard. "That's what makes the hunt so exciting."

Can't tell a collybia butyracea from an amanita citrina?

Au Diable Vert in Glen Sutton, in the Eastern Townships, holds mycology workshops, complete with theory and a trek into the woods, followed by a tasting session. To reserve a private class for groups of 10 or more, call Au Diable Vert, 450-538-5639 or visit

Mycoboutique carries mushroom-picking paraphernalia and hosts educational workshops and field trips. 830 Rachel St. E., Montreal, 514-223-6977. www. offers links to other sites of interest.

The wild-mushroom bible, Champignons Communs du Québec et de l'Est du Canada (Editions Michel Quintin, $34.99) is a newly published French-language guide with detailed descriptions and clear colour photographs of the most common wild mushrooms of Quebec. Its author, Raymond McNeil, is a retired Université de Montréal biology professor and lifelong amateur mycologist.

© The Gazette (Montreal) 2007


Seven-course meal of ... guess what?


Chef Nancy Hinton has been pickling, dehydrating, sautéing, vacuum-packing, freezing and otherwise preserving wild mushrooms for months now.

There are pine mushrooms in the pantry, powdered larch boletes in jars above the stove, sliced and sautéed chanterelles in the freezer.

And still, every day, boxes, bags and crates of different species of just-picked wild mushrooms keep turning up at the door of À la Table des Jardins Sauvages, the rustic restaurant in St. Roch de l'Achigan, overlooking the burbling St. Esprit River, where Hinton and her partner, François Brouillard, turn "wild things" into gastronomic operettas.

Right now, they are gearing up for their annual series of wild-mushroom tasting evenings, which feature a seven-course extravaganza that begins and ends with wild mushrooms, some preserved some fresh - all of them from Quebec and most from the 75 hectares of woods and fields surrounding their restaurant near Joliette.

"I'm in the mushrooms constantly. I smell like mushrooms and I dream about mushrooms at night," sighed Hinton as she took a brief break in her busy kitchen. "It's absolutely crazy."

The mushroom menus at her restaurant have attracted a cult following among passionistas. It's the fourth year for the event, and demand is so big that some of the eight seatings this weekend and next, at $75 per person (bring your own wine), are sold out, or almost so. So they have just added a third weekend in mid-November.

But a whole meal fashioned out of fungi?

Most people know little about mushrooms beyond the usual, often bland, suspects found at the grocery store. But in the wild-mushroom kingdom, there's a staggering diversity of tastes, textures and colours, Hinton explains.

Many mushrooms from the bolete family, Hinton says, exude the aromas of vanilla, chocolate and coconut when dried. She'll use larch boletes in a chocolate dessert, she says, because they are intensely sweet, with a nutty mocha fragrance. Pine and lobster mushrooms, for their part, have a firm and toothsome texture.

"There's a wild mushroom for every taste," she says.

À la Table des Jardins Sauvages's wild mushroom dinners take place tonight at 7 and tomorrow afternoon; next week, Thursday to Sunday, and again Nov. 9-10. The cost is $75 per person, tax and tip not included. Bring your own wine. The address: 17 Martin Rd., St. Roch de l'Achigan, about a 11/4 hour drive east of the city, past Repentigny. For more information or to reserve, call 450-588-5125 or check the website at


What's on the menu:

Puffball and sanglichon sausage with black trumpet mushrooms, porcini duxelles en gelée, with wild ginger mustard

Shaggy mane and yellow-brown boletus soup with lemon foam

Lobster and lobster-mushroom fricassée, sautéed chanterelles and corn, in a cattail flour crêpe with sea spinach

Crisp autumn vegetable salad with boletus insignia-scented oil, pickled pine mushrooms, smoked duck, toasted almonds and Fêtard cheese with wild grape coulis and fried oyster mushrooms

Roasted venison in a mushroom salt crust, delicious lactarius, hedgehog, smooth lepiota and blewit mushroom risotto cake, topped with morel sauce

Orange-capped bolete ice cream milk shake with glabrescent bolete and hedgehog mushroom shortbread cookies

Larch boletus frangipane and chocolate tartlet with fairy ring mushroom butterscotch sauce and coconut-meadow mushroom wafers

Mushroom caramel toffee

© The Gazette (Montreal) 2007