British Columbia is blessed with an abundance of wild foods, from stinging nettle to berries to a full spread of edible mushrooms. While our aboriginal and pioneer populations made full use of this bounty, most wild foods have fallen out of favour. Today on Island Artisans I told the story of one man who is trying to bring what he calls the “Untamed Feast” back into regular use. Eric Whitehead and his wife Michelle are the people behind a company they call ‘Untamed Feast’.
While Michelle spends more time at home handling packaging and other business details, Eric spends weeks at a time out in the woods all over British Columbia, harvesting wild mushrooms which are dried in the field, then packaged and distributed to restaurants and retail shops. Getting into this line of work goes all the way back to his childhood, growing up in the Central Interior, and going out once a year with his grandmother, picking pine mushrooms, just for their own use. But one year, it was a little different. He and his father were going to the garbage dump when they saw dozens of people picking pine mushrooms right by the side of the road. They were selling to a picker, so Eric went out and gathered a trunkful the next day and made $200. That made the light bulb go off, and the next thing you know he was chartering a helicopter and going to the best mushroom picking areas.
So Eric went into the business commercially in 1999, but then the prices for the pine mushrooms plummeted due to various economic factors…the ebb and flow of supply and demand. Eric and Michelle took their surplus of pines, sliced them and dried them in the sun on homemade chicken wire racks and he tried selling the dried mushrooms.
But nobody at any of the restaurants he tried selling to wanted anything to do with dried pine mushrooms, but he did learn they were interested in species like morels and porcini, so he changed his focus, built his own dryer in a trailer he can take with him wherever he goes, and “Untamed Feast” has continued to grow to the point where you can find his packages of dried mushrooms at many retail outlets throughout the province.
This time of year Eric is spending about 3 weeks away from home, visiting spots where he is most likely to find BC’s number one springtime mushroom, the morel. He calls it the creme de la creme of mushrooms, the one that is in the most demand and commands the best price.
Eric is very proud of the way he dries his product, and believes that dried morels actually have more flavour than fresh ones, because of the way the drying intensifies the flavour.
For consumers, you can purchase dried morels in attractive 20 gram packages, or dried porcini, or a forest blend of dried Porcini, Lobster, Red-tops and Chanterelle mushrooms. He's also created a gravy mix from dried, ground mushrooms.
Of course Eric misses his wife and young daughter when he’s away, and he’s cut his trips shorter because of that, then there are the encounters with grizzly bears, but one of his favourite stories took place last summer when he was up in the Great Slave Lake area hunting for morels with his brother-in-law. "So we've hiked in 10 kilometres through the mud, and bugs and the muskeg and the sun beating down on your back and you're carry this big backpack, hopefully with 50 pounds of mushrooms in it and you really want to sit down, but you need to set the pack on something or you might not be able to get up with it again. But there's nothing there. He spies this big rock, so goes over and turns around so he can lean up against it, when it suddenly gets up and walks away! It was a huge bison. Luckily that was the end of the story, thank God!"
No harm done in that encounter, but I would have loved to have been there to see that. Other than having to deal with the heat, the bugs and the muskeg, that is.
Today I took one of Eric's recipe ideas for morels and twisted it around a bit to create a spring mushroom and asparagus pasta.
Soak the contents of Untamed Feast Morels (20g package) in 1 cup of room temperature water for about 15 minutes, making sure the mushrooms get all wet. Take the rehydrated mushrooms out of the water and gently squeeze water from the mushrooms back into the bowl. Strain the water from the bowl into a small pot and reduce by half over high heat. Chop the mushrooms.
In a frypan on medium heat, fry one or two slices of chopped bacon. As it starts to release its fat add half a chopped onion, and some chopped, fresh asparagus. Once the asparagus starts to soften add in the mushrooms and season with salt and pepper. Add some of the mushroom water and let it evaporate while you are boiling some pasta. Take some of the pasta water and add it to the mushroom mixture to help thicken a bit. Pour over your drained pasta and grate some fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese on top.