PENINSULA - Fashionable fungus? Delectables derived from dark, damp trails are the focal point of the second annual Wild Mushroom Festival, which kicked off two weeks of events to marvel the miracles of mycology Friday night.
The purpose of the festivities, thought up by local inn-keeper Laurie Anderson, is to bring an appreciation of the wide variety of wild mushrooms that can found in the area, to the masses. There are over 150 different species of mushroom that grow in the immediate area.
"It's a wonderful place for mushrooms. Well, it's supposed to rain - you know, in the old days," David Campiche joked on a dry day last week while explaining the mycological environment here. "And when I say 150 to 200 [kinds of mushrooms], I don't think anyone is sure."
Campiche, who runs the Shelburne Inn with Anderson, has hunted for mushrooms in the area for many years and is a local expert on the subject. For instance, Campiche says this is a very poor year for local mushrooms.
"It's so dry," said Campiche, "yesterday I found some boletes that had just come up and their caps were dried out, like they were dehydrated. I'd never seen that. It's a strange year."
The less than prolific year has not hampered the activities of the festival however, said Campiche. "We've been finding enough to show off. It's not an abundant year, for sure. Last year was as good a mushroom year as I've ever seen."
There was plenty of fungus to be found on plates and paths starting Friday as the Shoalwater Restaurant hosted the "Wild Mushroom and Earthy Wines" dinner to kick things off, which was attended by 40-plus. And on Saturday, Veronica Williams, a famous fungi forager around these parts, led a "Wild Mushroom Adventure" hike through various environs of the Peninsula to see where and how various edible fungi grow.
For those who have never hunted wild mushrooms before, it is highly recommended that one goes with an expert the first few times, for not only are there delectables to be found, but also many dangerous mushrooms as well.
"There's 20 different boletes," said Campiche. "I would say that there's four of those 20 that we would call delectable. Most them are not even very well known, such as the red scaber, which is a beautiful, dense bolete. There's a rule, 'don't eat red.' Well, that one breaks the rule. But the amanita mascaria is brilliantly red with white dots - that's full of strychnine. None of them should be messed with until you're trained."
Taking a class in mycology is also suggested, for as Campiche warns, "It's not a field for amateurs."
Something else to consider when searching for wild mushrooms is the well-being of the species, so as not to over-harvest.
"There's a rule with the mushroom," said Campiche. "I leave the old ones, because they're dropping their spore prints. And I leave the babies with the closed caps, because they haven't dropped their spore prints. And it's tempting when you think that someone's going to get in your patch and you better grab them. But you have to help yourself that you don't take too much. I'm very worried about the pressure that's being put on the mushrooms. It isn't just local either, it's all over the country. Most of the chantrelles taken out of these woods are going to Germany and France."
The market for coveted mushrooms is very high, but the crop is also very unpredictable and changes year to year. A lot of the chantrelles served at fine dining establishments on the East Coast come from the Pacific Northwest.
"And everyone wants them," said Campiche. "And the buyers will often pay extra money for the small tight mushrooms with the caps that haven't opened, because they ship better. But those same mushrooms haven't got to spore print."
And these mushrooms can't just be grown anywhere - each mushroom has its own particular environment.
A chicken of the woods, for example, chooses only to grow on ancient dead cedar stumps. The oyster mushroom prefers dead alders, while the chantrelle is found commonly on second growth Douglas fir logs. And unfortunately, you can't grow these fantastic fungi in the garden at home.
"There are mycologists that have experimented with this for years," said Campiche of the dilemma. "There's one mushroom that now can be grown on a dead alder stump, that's the oyster mushroom. You drill holes to impregnate the log with the spores."
However, all the other coveted mushrooms are as of yet to have the same scientific success outside of their home environment.
"For years I used to take the boletes and if the caps were soft I'd put them around my yard and nothing ever happened," said Campiche. "It takes an element of things. And I think it would be wonderful if they could someday grow [wild mushrooms in controlled environments] then there wouldn't be this grab bag for everything in the hills. And people who liked them could gather their bushel basket and go home rather then a buyer or seller that might be looking for 50 to 100 pounds in a day."
Campiche and Anderson will be taking their turn with the fancy fungi on Saturday as they host a wild mushroom cooking class at the Shelburne Inn. Campiche's father, Dr. John Campiche, who is a recognized artist on the Peninsula, will hold a wild mushroom watercolor still life demonstration Sunday at China Beach Retreat. And Veronica Williams will be doing a presentation during the "Wild Mushroom Wine Dinner" at the Sanctuary restaurant on Thursday night.
When asked what he hopes that someone will take away from the two weeks of activities, Campiche replies, "A respect for this particular delicacy and how to treat it. I know it's a little corny, but it's like all riches that you stumble upon. I think an attitude of thank you is quite warranted. I found a beautiful patch of porcini the other day - they were perfect. And, you know, before I got down with my knife and whacked them away, I said, 'Thanks'. What a nice gift from the earth."