Being a purveyor of wild mushrooms is not unlike being, well, a dealer of illicit drugs. If you'll forgive the analogy, the two careers have a lot in common, from relying on an intricate network of connections to the moment of appreciation when the buyer holds the highly desired product in his or her hands. They even share an element of mystery: When will the shipment arrive? What will be in it? How fast can we get this stuff to our clients? And of course, both endeavors have a tendency to create a thriving repeat business.
Kelly Chadwick is inspecting a truck bed filled with chanterelles, lobster mushrooms, porcini and matsutakes that have just flown in from Oregon. He moves fast and speaks even faster; he and his partner Renee Roehl are committed to a 24-hour turnaround time from a mushroom's picking to its delivery at various area restaurants. These are incredible specimens -- even from a lifelong forager's perspective - and the subtle fragrance wafts gently out of the cardboard crates.
"Our season here is so short and inconsistent," says Chadwick. "But because of our pickers and our connections, we're able to have mushrooms through the entire fall, from the end of August/beginning of September all the way through December."
Chadwick and Roehl have been supplying such local eateries as Fugazzi and Paprika, as well as Huckleberry's, for several years now. Their business sprang up as simply and organically as a bolete pushes its way through soil and pine needles after a good rain.
"Certain things grab us and we become very drawn to them," he says. "Mushrooms were like that for me."
Chadwick was 16 when he met famed wellness guru Andrew Weil, who was visiting friends on a piece of property south of town. Weil suggested they all go on a foray, and to Chadwick's amazement, they found 22 different varieties of mushroom (most of them edible) on their hunt. Chadwick says he was hooked but wasn't able to get into it right away because he moved to Japan.
Chadwick returned to the Northwest right after high school.
"This area is one of the greatest mushroom-hunting areas in North America, and Priest Lake specifically is one of the best," he says. "So when I came back, I just got really involved. I joined the Spokane Mushroom Club and the Spokane Key Council, which writes the keys to identifying a lot of the mushrooms in this area. I taught mushroom identification classes at the Falls and went on a lot of forays, and that's when Bob Hancock and Kit Garrett who started Fugazzi, came to me and said "Hey, if you're going out there anyway, would you mind bringing us back some?"
It wasn't long before chef Karla Graves at Paprika followed suit and soon Chadwick had a small business on his hands. Through a variety of connections, Chadwick and Roehl met professional pickers and individuals who had found a way to support their entire families on the fruits of the forest. They now employ professional pickers from Oregon to Canada and supply about 50 local stores and restaurants.
The way Chadwick and Roehl's mushroom business is designed now, the mushrooms are picked at the height of their specific seasons and rushed to Spokane. The cooler, wetter, warmer of coastal Oregon yields today's crop, which has just been flown in via Horizon, and is being sorted and separated for a long list of clients. While dealing with fresh, wild mushrooms is rewarding on much more than a financial level, the two are also looking at branching into dried mushrooms, and a possible side business of importing wild mushrooms from France and Italy. This appeals to Chadwick both because many imported mushrooms are cultivated rather than wild, and also because he will be able to offer them at much more affordable prices. In the meantime, however, what appeals to Roehl and Chadwick most about their current livelihood is that it fits so well with some of their most strongly held convictions.
"There are other uses for the forest besides logging, and some of them are even fairly lucrative," Chadwick points out. "Mushrooms represent a good example of that kind of thing, but the other thing is that they depend so heavily on healthy forests.
"When they say a forest is thinned out, you look at it and it's pretty sparse. When you do that, you open up the canopy, you remove a lot of vegetation that the mushrooms need," he explains. "But you can really see the difference in an area that has been logged in a thoughtful manner. There's a strong canopy and thriving moss and fungi populations. In our opinion, we hope that by creating an appreciation for wild mushrooms, we help create more appreciation for healthy forests. And in our market-driven society, one of the only ways you can do that and effect any kind of change is by creating an awareness in the consumers."
All the farms I remember from growing up in North Idaho and Eastern Washington were not what you'd call stylish. In fact, what I do remember are blocky sofas covered in that ubiquitous mauve upholstery, copper Jell-O molds lining the kitche