The very climate that gives the Pacific Northwest its damp reputation, makes it a special place for mushrooms. The unique weather patterns and right mixture of moisture, shade, and elevation make our area a thriving breeding ground for prized culinary mushroom varieties.
Wild mushrooms are found by foraging in our rain forest and mountain areas. The life of a forager might elicit images of reclusive people who want to live off the land and lead secret lives. After talking to “Mushroom Joe,” who has been supplying restaurants in the greater Seattle area for over 30 years, you’re not that off base. Joe supplies both wild and farmed varieties. Wild mushrooms demand a higher price, and that’s where the experts come in – a good forager can pick 200 pounds a day. In the Pacific Northwest, Joe estimates there are over 1,000 foragers who sell to approximately 20 mobile buying stations.
While Joe is the face of the business and works directly with chefs, his tactics are also, well, elusive. He doesn’t have a website, and while he does have a cell phone and email, his modus operandi is to spontaneously show up at the restaurant’s kitchen door.
“He drops by unannounced at random times,” says AQUA by El Gaucho Executive Chef Wes Hood. “One of our cooks said it looks like some sort of shady deal is going down in the back kitchen whenever he arrives,” he laughs. “What’s in the box? Come out to the truck…I got something special for you to check out. What’s your price? However, he always has the skinny on what’s coming up seasonally, always has quality at a reasonable price, and is a fun guy to talk to.”
Mushrooms are organisms called Saprophytes, which means plants without chlorophyll, and thrive by extracting nutrients from dead and decaying plant and animal matter. They vary greatly in their color, texture, shape and properties. Many varieties are effective at fighting diseases and infections, as they are full of proteins, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, antibiotics and antioxidants, with health benefits for people treating anemia, high cholesterol, prostate and breast cancer and diabetes. They may also help regulate blood pressure, nutrition absorption, immune system strength, and bone health.
There are approximately 140,000 species of mushroom-forming fungi in the world, but science has only identified about 10% of them. Popular mushrooms native to this area include: morels, chanterelles, maitake, cauliflower, hedgehogs, lobster, oyster, matsutake, and porcini.
AQUA and El Gaucho Menus Highlight Two Native Fungi in September
Maitake (also called Hen-of-the-wood) grows in clusters at the base of trees, particularly oaks and are native to the Pacific Northwest. It is prized for its medicinal properties in Asia. It has a nice, earthy flavor profile.
Chanterelles are aromatic, fleshy, wild mushroom that have a magical appeal for most culinary experts. Their aroma is variously described as apricot or peach-like. It is easily identifiable because it “shines like an exotic golden flower when seen from a distance against the drab autumn forest background.” Chanterelles will reappear in the same places year after year if carefully harvested so as not to disturb the ground in which the mycelium (the vegetative part of the mushroom) grows.
Fall flavors are a wonderful match for dishes that highlight the umami tastes of mushrooms and we are proud to highlight two native fungi varieties during the month of September. Chanterelles and Maitake will be featured on our fresh sheet: The Tempura Maitake Mushrooms are a terrific starter, and add the Crème Sautéed Chanterelles on your fish or steak. Bon Appétit!