Sunday, October 24, 2021
Oct. 24, 2021

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Food & Drink: A field study in foraging for mushrooms

4 Photos
Mushroom foraging at Captain William Clark Park.
Mushroom foraging at Captain William Clark Park. Rachel Pinksy Photo Gallery

Rachel Zoller’s career as a mushroom foraging instructor started by accident. Eight years ago, this Pacific Northwest native was out foraging for huckleberries with friends. The huckleberries were nowhere to be found, but chanterelle mushrooms were everywhere.

“After that,” Zoller said, “everywhere I looked I could not not see mushrooms.”

Zoller started posting mushroom photos on Instagram (@yellowelanor) to catalog her learning process. Chelsea Heffner, of Wildcraft Studio School, saw Zoller’s Instagram photos and and convinced her to teach mushroom identification and foraging classes.

Five years later, Zoller teaches every weekend in the spring and fall at Wildcraft Studio School and Clark College’s Continuing Education Program.

I gathered, with 17 other students, on a sunny spring day at Beacock Music Hall at Clark College to learn more about these fascinating fungi.

“Go out with curiosity — not just what I can eat, but to learn more about the whole system,” she told us.

Identifying before eating

If we wanted to find something to eat, she encouraged us to learn how to identify one or two edible mushrooms at a time, gather them and identify them a few times before eating them. She also told us to keep a mushroom that has already been properly identified in the fridge to double check identification.

Everyone reacts differently to mushrooms; it’s best to eat a small amount at first. She advised us to be cautious.

“Don’t send photos of mushrooms in your yard and say, ‘I ate this two hours ago, should I go to the hospital?’ ” she said.

To harvest a mushroom, you unearth the entire specimen. Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of the overall fungi system. Taking them off doesn’t kill the entire organism. To identify a mushroom, you can smell it, pinch it, slice it, break it and see if it bruises. You can also identify mushrooms by creating a spore print by laying the mushroom cap on paper and pressing it so it releases its spores on a piece of paper.

Given all this information, students got in their cars and drove to Captain William Clark Park in Washougal. We met at the steps leading to Cottonwood Beach. After some words of encouragement from Zoller, we each headed out to find mushrooms.

If You Go

What: Mushroom identification class at Clark College Economic and Community Development, Continuing Education.

Where: 1933 Fort Vancouver Way, Vancouver.

Contact: 360-992-2939 or

A hunt before lunch

Under the impression that mushrooms grow in wet areas, I wandered around the wetland area and found nothing. I walked up a hill and followed a gravel road along the beach where I found a bunch of tiny chestnut-colored mushrooms. After an hour of looking, the class met at a picnic table and put our mushrooms on the table for Zoller to examine. Two people each found the grand prize — a morel.

I ate lunch with sister team Christa and Carol Gillette. They are experienced mushroom hunters and together found a bounty of these fungi fruiting bodies. Christa lived in Italy for 20 years and had foraged mushrooms in the Piedmont area. She also brought the perfect Italian hiking lunch — fresh mozzarella, tomato and basil on a ciabatta bun drizzled with olive oil to avoid sogginess.

Carol had a degree in microbiology and took a mycology class. Next time I forage for mushrooms, I’m bringing a partner (preferably one who has experience) and a better lunch.

After lunch, the class enthusiastically hunted for morels. Despite an hour of careful searching, no more morels were found. Rosanne Ponzetti, program manager for Clark College, generously gave me her morel. I took this beautiful mushroom home and cooked it in butter and shallots.

I can’t wait to get back out into the woods to find more.