Every year in mid-November I help my friend Bradley close up his cabin near the Rogue River in southwestern Oregon. The Rogue is one of only a handful of coastal rivers that can boast a significant roadless section, in this case a 30-plus mile stretch of river that flows through the Congressionally designated Wild & Scenic lower canyon and the adjacent Rogue River Wilderness. It’s rugged country filled with bears, cougars, hermits, and goldpanners. After the chores are attended to, we hike the trails, fish for steelhead, hunt mushrooms, and whump up big meals on the wood stove.
This annual trip is pretty much the capper on my year of wild food foraging.
Long Live the Queen
I don’t get many opportunities to pick queen boletes (Boletus regineus). They’re most often found in mixed woodlands of the coastal mountains to the south of me, in Northern California and Southern Oregon, particularly the lower elevations where tanoak thrives and puts the hurt on anyone hoping to bushwhack around those river valleys below snowline. I’ve never found them in Washington, probably because I rarely encounter tanoak here.
Besides habitat, the best way to distinguish the king and queen in the field is cap color (see photo at right). Queen boletes will have darker caps at maturation, sometimes a rich mahogany brown, and the younger specimens, while often lacking dark caps at this stage, will frequently have a whitish bloom across the cap that can be rubbed off with your finger. They’re generally smaller than kings too.
One of the cool things about the queen is that it fruits later than the king, at least where I pick it, and often in troops, so you can still get fresh porcini even after the kings have gone to dirt. Our queen is not the same species as the one found in the Old World. That’s Boletus aereus, which by all accounts rivals Boletus edulis, the king, for its porcini flavor and aroma. Boletus regineus is similar with its dark brown cap but tastes milder. On the plus side, the flesh is white and firm like the king yet often lacks the insect infestations of its more heralded partner in royalty.
We ate the queen with steak one night and sauteed it up with black trumpets another night to serve over crackers.
Blow Your Horn
Speaking of black trumpets (Craterellus cornucopioides), this is another species I only see in the Rogue. We never find large quantities, just enough to savor that wonderful woodsy, almost smoky flavor. Northern California is the strike zone for the trumpet. I’ve heard professional foragers reminisce about enormous patches in the hills just inland from the Pacific.
Supposedly there are a few patches of well-guarded trumpets in Washington but I’ve never found them. Instead I look to the Rogue each year to satisfy my craving. Sometimes we get just a taste that must last us through the year.
“They’re not big, but they don’t know it.”
The owner of the Silver Sedge Fly Shop told me that years ago when I stopped in to buy some fly-tying materials. He was talking about immature steelhead that probe the lower Rogue River before dropping back into the salt to finish their growth. Known as “half-pounders” to locals, these torpedo-shaped flashes of silver average 12 to 15 inches yet attack flies with the hellbent abandon of much larger fish and they’re a hoot on light fly gear.
As in previous years, I took a single hatchery half-pounder home to share with the family so they could get a taste of the Rogue. The other fish, most of them wild, were released back into the drink.