Climbing into the back of Jamie Simpson's muddy truck, I have to push aside a fishing pole, a pasta press, a bucket full of freshly harvested wild edibles, and a smoked fish wrapped in plastic, evidence of his latest venture into the wild. A huge bandage on his leg covers what he guesses is a poison oak rash he scored while trekking with a friend into the forest around 3 a.m. in search of bioluminescent (glowing) mushrooms. That was the same night his truck managed to get lodged in the mud so badly that several tow trucks failed to rescue them, and he had to fish and forage for their breakfast in the wee hours of the morning while waiting for a tractor to bail them out.
Although many foragers are extremely secretive about their harvest sites, Simpson, who works at Charleston Grill, is part of a group of like-minded chefs who take turns hosting foraging excursions in search of anything from dandelions to mushrooms. Their inclusive attitudes allow them to learn from each other, get a second opinion when harvesting, and celebrate together when they discover something rare. "You can learn so much from new people," he says. "They ask different questions and sometimes know different types of plants than I do."
As we stand along the Cooper River watching the early morning sunrise, eating freshly foraged sea beans (very salty, as you would expect), I ask Simpson if this is where he harvests the beans used at the restaurant. Shaking his head vigorously, he makes it very clear that he forages recreationally and leaves the sale of wild-harvested products to the professionals. One of the most recognized of these professional foraging companies is Mikuni Wild Produce, which has made a name for itself by hiring experienced foragers, also know as wild-crafters, to bring in a variety of wild edibles that are prized by chefs and foodies alike. Owner Tyler Gray traveled here for the Charleston Wine and Food Festival last March and regularly forages for a local favorite: chanterelle mushrooms.
The summer rain and warm weather has resulted in an abundance of this golden-colored fungus, which is prized for its fruity apricot smell and mild peppery taste. Compared to many of the white mushrooms, chanterelles are easier to identify because of their distinct color and aroma. Once identified, respectful foragers can return to the same location every season to harvest, as long as they take care not to trample the underground vegetative body of the mushroom (the mycelium) or harvest all of the mushrooms at once. It's important that foragers know how to positively identify these mushrooms, because chanterelles have mimics that can cause illness: the Jack o' Lantern and False Chanterelle. That being said, after about 20 minutes in the woods with Simpson, I was identifying all three without a problem.
"Once you learn to recognize something in the woods, you will start seeing it everywhere," Simpson says. "I will be driving down the highway and see chanterelles — it's hard not to stop."
Unfortunately, South Carolina has some surprisingly strict rules on selling wild mushrooms such as chanterelles, far more stringent than national standards. National regulations allow the sale of wild mushrooms, if they are harvested and/or identified by a mushroom expert or they are cultivated in a controlled inspected facility. South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Controls (SCDHEC) takes it much further with a blanket ban that states wild mushrooms "shall not be served or offered for sale." This strict regulation has tied the hands of farmers, foragers, and local wholesalers from being able to sell these locally abundant products. Strangely, many retailers have managed to buy and sell out-of-state wild mushrooms due to a lack of clarity and/or enforcement regarding how the regulation applies to imports.
The regulation of wild harvested mushrooms has been debated for decades across the nation due to the difficulty in defining what production methods, harvesting techniques, and expertise are needed to ensure a safe product. Over the years, regulatory agencies have begun to partner with mycologists, nonprofits, chefs, and health officials to determine the best practices for a successful program. Maine has pioneered a system that provides protection to both consumers and foragers, giving states like South Carolina something to reference as they evaluate their own mushroom management.
The SCDHEC Retail Food Establishments regulations are up for revision for the first time in 17 years, making it the perfect time to try and open up the market for local mushroom sellers. Even if the proposed changes deferred to national standards, it could level the playing field for those interested in the local market, especially considering foragers could be making as much as $30 a pound.
Regardless of the regulations on fungus, the Lowcountry has more to offer foragers than just mushrooms. On our morning outing, Simpson was able to find a smorgasbord of gourmet goodies including prickly pear cactus, cucuamelons, wild fennel, honeysuckle, wild asparagus, sea beans, muscadines, and loquat. Combined with the fresh bread from our meeting at EVO Craft Bakery, the chanterelles and bolete mushrooms from our hike, and the leftover smoked fish from his backwoods misadventure, we had the ingredients for a feast foodies would swoon over. Of course, most people aren't willing to spend their morning sweating it out, covered in mosquitoes, dodging snakes, avoiding poison ivy, and picking cacti from their pants in hopes of securing a free meal from the wild. Even Simpson, someone who is passionate about foraging, admits that doing it for a living would take a rugged individual, especially in the South where everything bites or burns. This is why most people will pay top dollar for a chef to cook a meal scavenged from the wilderness. For those like Simpson, who view foraging as a treasure hunt and are considering taking a shot, I would follow his simple advice: "Take someone with you, only eat what you know, watch where you walk, and don't harvest it all so there is some for the next time."
Recipe courtesy of Jamie Simpson. Serves two.
This is a simple sauté that has carried me through many meals at home: for breakfast with eggs and grits; on grilled steak or fish; with rice or beans or both.
2 cups chanterelles, cleaned and trimmed
1/8 cup butter
1/4 onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
white wine (A dry white for a lighter course or a fortified wine such as sherry or marsala for a richer preparation.)
Thyme or chives if you got 'em
Salt and black pepper
Heat a cast iron pan over medium-high heat. After pan is hot, add chanterelles, then butter. If the mushrooms absorb all of the butter, add a little more. Add onions and garlic. Stir and stop. Let the ingredients sear. Carefully add a splash of wine with the herbs. Season with salt and pepper. Toss the ingredients together. Take a second to stop and smell the kitchen. This is why I spend my days in the woods.