Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

America Goes Wild for Mushrooms an Oregon Dealer of Morels, Black Trumpets, and More Tells of Booming Interest in Exotics

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

America Goes Wild for Mushrooms an Oregon Dealer of Morels, Black Trumpets, and More Tells of Booming Interest in Exotics

Article excerpt

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. …

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