Plenty of Shroom: An Interview With Untamed Feast, Wild Mushroom Foragers
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So, Eric Whitehead of Untamed Feast, tell us about your passion for mushrooms and when you decided to turn that passion into a business.My earliest childhood memory is of my father waking my sister and I up in the middle of the night to show us a mushroom that had ‘magically grown overnight’ in the garden. He had brought it home to our cabin by horseback and planted it, along with a bit of my future, I guess. My parents built that cabin from scratch, and since it was in deep in the rural middle of nowhere BC, we lived off the land and spent a lot of time in the woods. I began a career in forestry, always with mushroom buckets in the back of my vehicle.
In 1999 there was a pine mushroom (matsutaki) gold rush in our area. Dad and I were picking so many mushrooms that we hired helicopters. It was a real thrill. A few years later, my wife and I left our city life and jobs to go to Bella Coola to pick those same mushrooms which were by then one hundreth of the price. It spurred me get more involved in what happens to those mushrooms after they’ve been picked. I built a portable mushroom drier, started a line of mushroom products, and built a company dedicated to educating people on the delights of Canadian wild foods and inspiring them to use these as ingredients in their own kitchens.
I know you travel extensively to find these funghi, but how often are you out on foraging expeditions and where in the world do you go!?
By the end of May, we’re hunting morels, which grow most abundantly where there’s been a forest fire the previous year. We’ve been as far south as Oregon, as far north as the Northwest Territories, and as far east as Flin Flon, Manitoba. A great season, depending on elevation and weather would go until September. The fall harvest has way more diversity. It has taken us years of scouting to find reliable spots for porcini, lobster mushrooms, hedge hogs, chanterelles and others that are in our forest blend and there’s still always a chance that they won’t be there. A lot of our fall mushrooms are from the coast, and if I get any more specific I’ll have to kill you. Just joking. Fall mushrooms can start appearing as early as August and run through November on Southern Vancouver Island – oh, did I just tell you where?
How many different types of mushrooms do you source and sell?
First we need to emphasize that the mushrooms we work with cannot be cultivated or farmed. We choose only, well-known, gourmet edible species. We have four products in our pure dried mushroom line: morels, porcini, alder-smoke wine-cask aged chanterelles, and a forest blend. The forest blend is the best of what’s available each year and can have 5-10 species in it depending on that year’s availability. Our ready-to-go line includes a wild mushroom gravy mix, a wild mushroom soup, porcini risotto, Thai morel coconut rice, and a smoked chanterelle spanish-style rice. All of our products are gluten free and can be made vegan.
What’s the process from soil to retail product?
Planning the harvest is a big part of the process, and then the driving, scouting, and hiking can begin. Everything is hand harvested, hand processed (some species are sliced) and then dried the same day in a mobile, commercial food drier. Drying is an art which requires a precise combination of heat, air, and time. We use wood heat which makes a big difference in quality. We then bring the dried mushrooms back to Vancouver Island where we either package, smoke and age, or combine them with other ingredients for the finished products that go to restaurants and stores.
Advice for the average Joe out looking for edible mushrooms?
Go with someone who knows. Mushroom hunting is an experiential thing. If your mom teaches you about gardening zucchinis, about the soil it likes, how to pick it, and how to cook with it …you will never in your life mistake a zucchini for a cucumber. Same thing with mushrooms. The soil, the conditions, the smell, the color, the taste…they’re all sensory experiences that have a lot more value than the best mushroom book in the world. There are some good mushrooms books, but always cross reference, and if you are not 100% sure, don’t eat it. There’s a saying; “There are old mushroom and bold mushroom pickers, but there are no old, bold mushroom pickers.” We’ve got lots of harvest videos on our website that show you how we do it.
What’s your favourite mushroom recipe ?
Morel cream sauce over pasta or chicken breast.
And the one Untamed Feast product, you couldn’t live without?
I love all my babies equally, but if I was welcoming you to the world of wild mushrooms I’d say morels. They are the most desired wild mushroom next to truffles. So many North Americans have never had them, which is a shame because they are here and they are fabulous. They are so unlike a button mushroom; honey-comb in appearance, meaty in texture, earthy in flavour, and incredibly good for you.
When people start calling me asking where they can find your products, what shall I tell them?
Go to our website and either look under vendors, see if we’ll being doing a food show near you, or order online. And if you have a favourite store that specializes in artisan food tell them to get in touch with us.
And because we love used – do you buy anything used for businesses purposes?
Yes, I use my local Used Site often for camping gear, restaurant equipment, and just personal items I may find for the house.
What was your best used find?
An aggressive set of off road tires for the mushroom truck, some years I can burn through a set of tires in the mushroom hunt, and that gets expensive, so finding a good used set really saves me some money.