The Poor Man’s Steak

Hunting porcini in the Washington wild. 

By Langdon Cook December 19, 2008 Published in the October 2008 issue of Seattle Met

"THIS IS IT—the honey hole," says Jeremy Faber, professional fungus forager and owner of Seattle-based Foraged and Found Edibles. We’re standing in a sun-dappled forest of mature firs and pines near a tributary of the Wenatchee River. It’s a peaceful enough spot, but I can’t see any mushrooms.

Faber kneels down beside a nearly imperceptible rise in the duff and starts digging with his pocketknife. In a moment, the pink-hued top of a king bolete emerges, its cap still convex. This is what’s known in the industry as a button: basically a perfect specimen—youthful, firm, bug-free—which rates a number one on the mushroom grading scale. Left for a day or two it would have matured into a number two: a young adult that is beyond button stage but still valuable. (Earlier this year, Faber pulled in around $14 a pound for the grade-one boletes, $8 for the twos). Quickly, he unearths two more buttons, then locates a troop of them circling a fir tree. In minutes his five-gallon bucket is half full. Before moving on, Faber slices off some “dryers,” or number threes: boletes that have been flapping in the breeze long enough to grow soft-fleshed, with a maggot or two tunneling through the meat. These he will preserve for the off-season.

While the prolific golden chanterelle (Cantharellus formosus), well-known to even casual eaters, may seem like the poster child for wild Northwest mushrooms, Faber says he can never pick enough of the king bolete (Boletus edulis)—the mushroom most commonly called by its Italian name, porcini, meaning “little pigs.” (Another king bolete sobriquet from Italy, “the poor man’s steak,” comes from the rich, meaty taste the ’shroom takes on when grilled or roasted). While there are more than 150 different mushroom species in the Boletus genus—some edible, others poisonous—king boletes are by far the most sought after. Shrinking numbers have led to government limits on porcini hunting in Italy. In Washington State, however, little pigs are abundant, fruiting nearly eight months out of the year, with three distinct seasons in spring, summer, and fall. South of Mount Adams, Faber was harvesting porcini as early as April; in June and July he targeted the east slope of the Cascades, working his way to the crest as summer heated up, then dropping down to the west side in fall, and closing out the year near the coast. Faber’s favorite is the autumn Cascade king bolete, with its tan cap and crisp applelike white flesh, and he defies any Italian to produce a better porcino. “Their stuff mostly comes from Poland anyway,” he says, laughing.

A former forestry student, Faber started foraging professionally so he could spend more time outdoors, but it’s his ability to finagle his way into the city’s kitchens that explains his success. “I’ve planted my feet in both worlds, the woods and the city,” says Faber. In an industry where his competitors are comprised mostly of recent immigrants—legal and otherwise—who hump 80-pound packboards out of the woods every few days only to haggle over 50 cents with a roadside buyer, he’s figured out how to serve Seattle restaurants directly and run a thriving company, with porcini and a few other big-ticket forest products at the heart of his business. For now he employs only one full-time helper, but with the increasing popularity of wild foods he expects to hire another soon. Faber usually does well enough to take Januarys off for backcountry skiing in the Kootenay and spearfishing in the Bahamas, where he’s built a house with his family—thanks largely to his mushroom profits.

As we drive down a back road, Faber points to kings the size of dinner plates fruiting right out of the shoulder duff. He calls them flags: floppy old mushrooms that are “blown” and “wormed out.” But they’re a good sign. Moments later, we skid to a stop and Faber is out of the car and crashing through brush, his long, loping strides surprisingly graceful in thickets of vine maple. He points out the tree composition without breaking stride: grand fir here, silver fir over there, lots of young spruce—we’re on the right track. Then, amidst a tangle of saplings and dead trees, he stops and announces with characteristic confidence that we have hit the porcini jackpot. Once again, the ground looks bereft of all fungal life. But now I know better than to doubt him, and soon enough the porcini pile up in the bucket.

Find porcini and other mushrooms at Faber’s Foraged and Found Edibles stand at neighborhood farmers markets including Ballard and the University District.