Local chefs and fungi-fiends forage for their food in the Lowcountry 

Treasure Hunt

click to enlarge Woody Collins forages blackberries in Sheldon, S.C.

Ruta Smith

Woody Collins forages blackberries in Sheldon, S.C.

For years, one of the Lowcountry's most plentiful culinary resources, the golden chanterelle, remained off restaurant menus and unavailable for retail sale.

Golden chanterelles are wild mushrooms, and until the summer of 2014, it was illegal in South Carolina to sell foraged mushrooms or serve them in restaurants. The laws were primarily in place for safety reasons, as an untrained eye can easily mistake toxic mushrooms for edible varieties.

Enter Tradd Cotter, a mycologist and founder of Mushroom Mountain, a cultivation and research facility in Easley, S.C. Cotter worked alongside partners at Clemson University, Lowcountry food hub GrowFood Carolina, and the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control to develop new regulations for foragers of wild mushrooms.

Today, foragers who pass Cotter's state-authorized wild mushroom food safety certification course receive a permit that is valid in South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New York. If they so choose, these certified foragers are permitted to sell their wares to distributors.

Participants receive study materials in advance of the two-day intensive course, which includes lessons on fungal ecology, food safety protocol, and species identification. To become certified, participants must pass a food safety quiz and a final identification exam.

"I wanted a bulletproof program, and so do the health departments and the FDA, so I designed the best class possible," says Cotter, who estimates that one-third of the 550 foragers certified through the class are South Carolina residents.

The class has drawn all types of foragers, from those who hope to sell to restaurants to others who want to collect mainly for themselves.

For forager Stephanie Berry, becoming certified was a next step in developing further expertise after she taught herself how to identify the most common species found in the Lowcountry.

"Most of what I get goes to me," Berry says. "I eat them, and my friends and family eat them. If I get a huge amount, I'll sell them to Lowcountry Local First, but I don't sell to restaurants or anything. I'm pretty small-time."

Brian Ambrose is another forager who mainly keeps his haul for himself and sells to friends and family. A sergeant in the Charleston Police Department, Ambrose first heard about wild mushroom foraging while assisting with traffic control at GrowFood's annual Mushroom Gathering.

He didn't give it a second thought, however, until months later, when he spotted an assortment of golden chanterelles in the woods while deer hunting. Last fall, he went to Easley to take Cotter's class.

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"One of the things they teach you are what are the lookalikes to the common edibles that we are licensed to collect," Ambrose says. "They tell you if you misidentify something that will kill somebody, you fail, and rightfully so. They're really trying to tell you to use as many avenues to be certain of what you collect so you're not having an accidental poisoning or something of that nature."

Seventy-seven-year-old Woody Collins, who has been foraging for decades and remembers accompanying his grandfather to find wild mushrooms at age five, says taking Cotter's class was "the icing on the cake" of the years he has spent learning about mushrooms on his own.

"I think it was a very good class as far as achieving what they wanted to achieve — to be able to bring mushrooms to the table safely," says Collins, who sells foraged mushrooms to GrowFood and wild blackberries directly to Husk.

Some chefs are even foraging themselves. After being introduced to foraging by Brandon Buck, executive chef of Tradd's, Drew Hedlund, director of culinary operations for Tradd's and Fleet Landing, became certified through Cotter's class in March 2018.

click to enlarge Husk utilized berries foraged by woody collins in a same-day special recently - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Husk utilized berries foraged by woody collins in a same-day special recently

"As a chef, we always like really fresh ingredients, and it really doesn't get much fresher than the products we pick," Hedlund says. "But almost probably equally for me, I really like being out in nature and out in the woods and just kind of the solitude of it ... it's kind of like treasure hunting, in a way."

Hedlund hopes to eventually incorporate seasonal dishes that feature foraged mushrooms at one or both restaurants. He says he is still at the experimental stages of determining how best to use them in the kitchen.

"Mushrooms have this umami, and they lend these flavors and this dimension to dishes," Hedlund says. "So it's just a way to really augment what you're doing with a particular dish."

Chefs Travis Grimes of Husk and Kevin Johnson of The Grocery have both incorporated foraged mushrooms into dishes ever since the new foraging laws were implemented.

Grimes says golden chanterelles can often be spotted on Husk's ever-changing menu during the summertime alongside other seasonal crops.

"They're really beautiful on a plate because of their vibrant color, but just the delicate flavor of the mushroom itself is so nice," he adds. "It really goes with a lot of the vegetables that are happening at the same time that the chanterelles are coming up — sweet corn and summer squashes and stuff like that. It really complements those types of vegetables, so it works out for us that those seasons coincide."

At The Grocery, Johnson has served golden chanterelles as a garnish for a farm egg ravioli dish, paired with sweet corn, and as a "Spanish-style escabeche."

"You slow-poach them in olive oil and pack them with a vinegar, and then they get really bright and fruity and acidic," he says.

Other mushroom varieties, including hen of the woods and chicken of the woods, are occasionally found on The Grocery's menu, but chanterelles remain the most prominent foraged variety, Johnson notes.

"Chanterelles, in particular, they are earthy, so to speak, but with where they hit in the summertime, even though they are a mushroom that has some kind of deep-rooted earthiness to them, they're super bright and fruity, and they complement a lot of other ingredients that time of year to kind of round some things out," Johnson notes.


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