Bill Jones, an award-winning cookbook author, chef, and consultant, calls the bountiful Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island home. There he’s restored an old farmhouse—Deerholme—to use as his base of operations. Lucky for Bill, prodigious mushroom fruitings occur in the nearby mountains, valleys, and coastal forests. I caught up with Bill recently to talk about his new cookbook, The Deerholme Mushroom Book, and his thoughts on wild mushroom foraging and cooking.
FOTL: Tell us a little bit about your neck of the woods in British Columbia. Are there specialties in your region or certain species you’re known for?
Bill Jones: The south Vancouver Island region is generally a maritime Mediterranean climate, and the Cowichan Valley is one of the sunnier places in Canada. This allows species like the white Oregon truffle to thrive. The tree type is dominantly Douglas fir with a mixture of western hemlock, grand fir, white pine, and cedar, which makes for a nice variety of terrain for many of the choice edible varieties. Fall is a pretty special place here for mushroom foraging.
One of our claims to fame is for giant versions of mushroom specimens. We have a nice combination of rainfall and heat that produces massive growth in some mushrooms. There are huge cauliflower fungi, giant Pacific golden chanterelles, and porcini that have weighed over three pounds. One of my most exciting finds was a white morel that weighed in at over two pounds.
What’s your favorite mushroom to forage?
That’s a hard question. They’re like children—hard to pick a favorite. I would say the pine mushroom [matsutake] would be at the top of the list. The aroma of a fresh pine is intoxicating. I like to stand there and breathe in the heady scent when I find one. It always makes me happy.
What sort of habitat and forest conditions do they prefer?
Locally we look on slopes with southern exposure and a mix of Douglas fir and hemlock. Nearer the coast we find them in thickets of wild huckleberry. The pine seems to like a lot of rain and the fruiting really kicks off in late October and early November.
How do you like to cook pines?
I like to make a bowl of nice chicken stock, greens from the garden, udon noodles, and thiny sliced pine mushrooms. It is a satisfying and rewarding bowl of soup.
Why should home cooks be excited to cook with wild mushrooms?
Mushrooms are nature’s flavor booster; they make any dish a little more appealing to the taste buds. Some are dense and meaty, others are soft and supple. They all contain some degree of natural sugars which caramelize when cooked. This adds to their delicious taste and makes some mushrooms, like porcini, absolutely incredible. There are also significant medicinal benefits. Many have immune system boosting properties that can play a healthy and vibrant role in your diet. Shiitake mushrooms have been used as a medicine in China for the last thousand years.
What would you say to the beginning mushroom hunter?
It would probably be wise to say a few words about fear. The phobia of mushrooms stops a lot of people from enjoying the vast world of fungi. Much of this fear is misplaced, but some of it is warranted. I tell new foragers to educate themselves on a few easy targets like chanterelles and porcini and to have a healthy respect for all the rest. You should never consume a mushroom when you are not 100 percent sure of the identification. A good guidebook is very helpful, but nothing beats the experience of seeing the mushroom in the field. A guided forage is a good way to start, either with the local mycological society, naturalist tours, or through workshops like those we give here at Deerholme Farm.
What species and cooking techniques would you recommend for beginners?
I would recommend you start with chanterelles. Make sure they are relatively dry—spread them out on paper towel for several hours to wick away moisture. Clean off any dirt, debris, or browned edges. Heat a skillet very hot and add a mixture of butter and oil (I use grapeseed oil). Add the mushrooms and sauté until they release moisture and start to brown around the edges. Add a clove of chopped garlic and salt and pepper. This is the best way to eat chanterelles. Try on top of a grilled piece of bread, cooked pasta, or rice. Simple and delicious.
Have the mushrooms taught you anything over the years?
Mushroom hunting in our region forces you to become an environmentalist. You quickly realize that mushrooms require prime habitat to flourish. Trees are a precious resource that have deeply ingrained relationships with the local fungi population. We must protect our forests from over-harvesting and abuse if we want to see the mushrooms flourish for future generations. I try to pass this message on to all our students here on the farm. We all have a place in protecting our forests and a duty to stand up for those who cannot.
Lastly, tell us about a recipe in the book that every wild mushroom enthusiast and/or home cook should try.
I love to play around with classic flavors and simple preparations. In the book there is a recipe for a warm bacon and potato salad that I use with many variations. You have to source good ingredients to make it really shine: local potatoes, thick-cut slab bacon, fresh herbs, and of course fresh mushrooms. Any mushroom will also work in this recipe; you could blend morels or even brown button mushrooms into the mix with excellent results.
Warm Bacon, Chanterelle, and Potato Salad
A variation on a classic German potato salad made with chanterelles. It is best to add the dressing to warm potatoes so they soak up all the dressing. Serve at room temperature.
2 lb (1 kg) potatoes, peeled
1/4 lb (115 g) thick-cut bacon, cut in thin strips
1 lb (450 g) chanterelles, cleaned and sliced salt and pepper, to taste
2 tbsp (30 ml) apple cider vinegar
2 tbsp (30 ml) olive oil
2 tbsp (30 ml) grainy mustard
1 tsp (5 ml) chopped capers
3 tbsp (45 ml) chopped sweet onion, fresh chives, or green onions, minced, for garnish
1. Add potatoes to a large pot of salted cold water. Bring to a boil and cook until tender.
2. Meanwhile, warm a skillet over medium-high heat, add the bacon, and heat until the bacon is browned and has rendered its fat. Add the chanterelles and sauté until the mushrooms give off moisture and it has completely evaporated. Season with salt and pepper. When the mushrooms just begin to brown on the edges, remove from heat and set aside.
3. In a large mixing bowl, combine vinegar, oil, mustard, capers, and onion. Stir until mixed.
4. Drain potatoes and add while still warm to the dressing. Add the bacon and toss to coat. Serve warm, garnished with fresh chives or green onions.