America Goes Wild for Mushrooms

An Oregon dealer of morels, black trumpets, and more tells of booming interest in exotics

LARS NORGREN remembers how he first became interested in wild mushrooms: His family was on a camping trip in the Wallowa Mountains of eastern Oregon, and as a curious seven-year-old he picked a morel. His dad knew a little about wild mushrooms and encouraged him to keep looking. Soon, Norgren had 10 different kinds of mushrooms taped to a paper towel.

Today, Norgren is a mushroom dealer based in Portland. He buys from pickers and sells to restaurants, specialty stores, and distributors across the United States and abroad. His company, Peak Forest Fruit, celebrates its 10th anniversary this year and is a testimony to this country's growing interest in wild mushrooms.

If you call the Peak Forest Fruit hot line, you might hear something like this: ``Today we have yellowfoot chanterelles, golden chanterelles, black trumpets, hedgehogs, matsutake ....''

This particular day, Norgren invites a reporter to one of his favorite restaurants in Portland, Cafe du Berry.

After delivering a bounty of wild mushrooms to the kitchen, he sits down for an interview over a dish prepared by chef Mike Anderson: pasta with golden and white chanterelles, hedgehog mushrooms, matsutake, and broccoli. The texture and flavor of the mushrooms add a hearty, meatlike quality to the dish.

Oregon has one of the longest mushroom seasons in the world because of its topography and geographical location, Norgren explains. Fungi and its fruits (mushrooms) thrive in a damp, mild climate.

Winter isn't exactly peak mushroom season here, but Norgren carries a variety of ``winter'' mushrooms and others that he buys from California. ``There are species of mushrooms specific to all seasons,'' he says. Oregon truffles, for example, are winter mushrooms because they fruit entirely underground and resist freezing.

Recently, the mushroom business has, well, mushroomed in the Northwest, leading some to compare it to a mini gold rush. Reports of robberies, territorial squabbles, and two murders have made headlines, while pickers' access to public and private lands is increasingly restricted.

Some pickers, many of them Southeast Asian immigrants, struggle to make $20 a day, while others do much better: Norgren remembers one day when pickers of No.1-grade matsutake mushrooms - prized in Asian markets - got $600 a pound. All this has made some people wonder if mushrooms are a better cash crop than timber in the Northwest.

``Face it, the main ingredient to grow mushrooms is water. That's not expensive in Oregon,'' Norgren says.

The volume of wild-mushroom sales in the US has gone up steadily over the past 10 years, says Norgren, whose company averages 300 lbs. a day. ``Interest in wild mushrooms has come along as part of the growing interest in fine foods,'' Norgren says. ``My assumption is that most people's first contact with wild mushrooms is in a restaurant. They want to go home and make the same dish.''

People's attitudes about wild mushrooms vary greatly, depending on where they live and how they come in contact with the ``forest fruit.'' Norgren explains:

In places such as Italy, France, Eastern Europe, Japan, China, and Russia, wild mushrooms are a traditional part of the cuisine. In fact, morels and truffles have been popular for centuries. Worldwide, wild mushrooms make up a $250-million industry, conservatively, Norgren says. China is beginning to enter the market, getting mushrooms from Russia and selling them to Germany and France, says Norgren, who recently foraged in Russia.

On the other hand, people in North America and Northern Europe tend to be ``mycophobic;'' - fearful of mushrooms, say mushroom experts. Most are content buying cultivated fresh ``white button'' and canned mushrooms, often regarding wild mushrooms as mysterious toadstools that alter consciousness or are poisonous. True, each year a few people die from eating poisonous mushrooms - usually because they were inexperienced foragers. This is why it is important to let knowledgeable and experienced mushroom hunters identify those mushrooms that are edible; certain look-alikes can make identification tricky.

Norgren is quick to point out that out of the thousands of mushroom species in North America, only five or six are deadly. ``To my knowledge, no one has ever died from mushrooms they bought,'' Norgren adds. He deals in only 20 different well-distinguished species.

Despite certain prejudices, wild mushrooms are gaining respect in the United States as consumers become more educated about them. Chefs have touted wild mushrooms for a long time. Wolfgang Puck, owner and chef of Spago in West Hollywood, Calif., and other well-known eateries, says he loves to serve truffles atop baked potatoes, for example.

Wild mushrooms aren't cheap, thus they have certain chi-chi appeal. ``Some people have genuine interest, but there's also a lot of snobism,'' Norgren points out. They can range in price from several dollars to hundreds of dollars a pound, depending on many factors: availability, type, and grade. Mushrooms are classified in six or seven different grades, and prices change all the time, Norgren says. Last year, harvests were low, which made prices high.

``It's a very select group of people who are buying,'' Norgren says.

The reputation of the wild mushroom still has a ways to go, but Americans will probably ``come around'' as they did with other once-exotic goods that trickled down from haute cuisine, Norgren says.

But who says it has to come from haute cuisine? As a father of three, Norgren knows just how young palates can be attracted to wild mushrooms. Just last week, his 11-month-old son became an enthusiastic eater of black trumpets.

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