Whitney Pipkin

Whitney Pipkin writes at the intersection of food, agriculture and the environment from her home base in Northern Virginia. Her work for the Bay Journal often focuses on the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, and she is a fellow of the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Even in winter, there’s fungus among us

Mushroom tours offer food for thought, skillet

Something about the coldest winter in decades beckoned Steve Haas to go a-hunting. He wanted to see if the Tuckahoe Plantation near Richmond — where he lives, forages for wild foods and leads tours — had new edibles to put forth in its frostiest state, even if a little snow had to be pushed aside to find them.

“We found tens of pounds of all types of mushrooms all through the winter,” Haas said.

As a result, Haashrooms, his mushroom foraging and cultivating company, now offers tours through the winter months. “I figured if I did as well as I did last year — in the coldest winter in 35 years — I was missing an opportunity.”

Haas has been fascinated with mushrooms since the ripe age of 12, when a man who worked for his grandfather taught him the art of the hunt. Haas turned the art into a trade a decade ago when he started selling his expertise as a guide for foraging tours, called “wild food forays,” and selling some of his finds at area farmers markets, along with other mushroom varieties that he cultivates.

Now, Haas leads a dozen guided hunts a week, most of them in the plantation’s sprawling hardwood forest, where edible plants abound.

“Actually, I think it’s some of the best mushroom hunting in the world around here,” Haas said.

The distinct seasons of the mid-Atlantic region, where he forages most often, produce wide varieties of edible plants just waiting to be discovered (Haas has also started leading tours internationally, for the right price).

Haas’ Instagram feed (Instagram.com/Haashrooms) shows off some of that diversity and hints at the know-how that comes with a tour. There are photos and recipes — typically “sauté in butter” — for a dark-pink beefsteak, a waterfall-like lion’s mane, the multitiered chicken of the woods in several sizes and even a rare Polyporus umbellatus, the tuber of which Chinese medicine uses to treat lung cancer.

“I find several every year about the same time, in the same spot,” Haas wrote about the rare find, an advantage of scouring over the same grounds several times per week.

Private foraging tours with Haas run $200 for two people and include 2.5 hours of hunting for edibles, with participants taking home both what they find and what they’ve learned. In the summer, he leads larger group tours on Sunday mornings to raise funds for the plantation.

Haas said the lessons of hunting for wild edibles are relevant to nearly every region. Mushrooms “have relationships with trees,” so Haas starts by helping visitors identify trees by their leaves and bark, teaching them which ones are most likely to foster something fungal along their trunks or nearby.

“The comment I get the most is, ‘ The woods will never look the same to me again,’ ” Haas said. Hunting for wild-growing food “slows you down in the woods and makes you pay attention to your surroundings.”

Haas said his customers range from “doomsday preppers” who want to know more about finding off-the-grid sustenance to local food enthusiasts and chefs.

What do they learn? Each mushroom variety comes with a unique flavor profile as well as nutritional and medicinal properties. The best day to hunt for mushrooms is after a good rain or snow. The moisture signals the mushroom to put forth fruit and reproduce, which means more edible mushrooms worth finding.

And Haas said one of the best places to look for edibles can be national parks, where “you can’t dig up a tree” but you can eat its fruit, whether that’s apples, persimmons, pawpaws or mushrooms. But first check the park’s website for regulations. Shenandoah National Park permits foraging for spring morels without a permit, for example, but Rock Creek Park in Washington, DC, does not allow foraging.

Those who have been on one of his tours often leave with several pounds of mushrooms, a foundation for hunting on their own and an ability to identify common plants as edible, non-edible and poisonous.

Which brings Haas to another point: There’s a reason it’s called mushroom hunting, not mushroom finding. Some days are more successful than others.

But, he said, “after a while, you start to see patterns in nature. There’s a rhythm to it.”

For information, visit stevehaasmushrooms.com.

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Whitney Pipkin

Whitney Pipkin writes at the intersection of food, agriculture and the environment from her home base in Northern Virginia. Her work for the Bay Journal often focuses on the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, and she is a fellow of the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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