Road Foodie

Some people drive simply to arrive.

Follow That Fungi

Posted By on May 28, 2009

Worth all the fuss: morels (these are the blond ones). Add cream or butter and heat, and you'll know why.

Worth all the fuss: morels (these are the blond ones). Add cream or butter and heat, and you'll know why.

After the irreverent early-May event that was the Duckathlon ’09, I thought it might be nice to visit Ariane and Lily in their own lair, so last week I made my way to the Ironbound neighborhood of Newark (clearly, worth its own, separate visit). Half a block from the gates of D’Artagnan’s home base, as jets thundered by overhead so close I could see the rivets in their underbelly, I stopped for gas. When asked about the colorful area, the large-bellied proprietor of the filling station related that the Ironbound area “doesn’t have any them blacks, just Salvadorans, Brazilians, Venezuelans.” As I tried to make a hasty departure from his pig-ignorant, last-millennium camaraderie, he said “You goin’ to see them chicken people, huh?”

D’Artagnan—and its inspired founder Ariane Daguin—are far more than just chicken people. Back in 1983, when I smuggled an entire foie gras from London to Los Angeles in a Tampax box, Ariane saw a pressing need in this country, and fulfilled it. But foie was only the beginning. Now, D’Artagnan sources excellent meat and poultry products from all over the world and gets them to the people who want them. They are gateway and clearinghouse—thus the operation’s location, hard by the airport. In this large world of ours, those who would like to eat —and can pay for—delicacies like Wagyu beef, ventreche, duck sausage, and cuts of heritage-breed pork mostly live far, far away from those who have enough land and the know-how to produce them. If D’Artagnan didn’t put the two together, the farmers would have no market, and their products would likely cease to exist. What a sad, vanilla world that would be.

Porcini that clearly want to come home with me.

Porcini that clearly want to come home with me.

But the most surprising thing I found in the vaulting, hangar-sized warehouse as Lily Hodge and I wandered, wearing heavy coats, passing by fond friends from my food past and future, was not the suckling pig or the terrine of pure foie, but the non-meat produce. Who knew? (Well, I’m sure all the chefs know, but I didn’t.)

There are greens, like fiddlehead ferns, in brief and exclusive season, but most of the traffic is in mushrooms. Although there are cremini, oyster, shiitake, and portobello, most of the fungi are exotica beyond this pretty serious cook’s wildest imagination. D’Artagnan employs a specialist named Steve Perei—know as “the mushroom guy”—whose responsibility it is to follow each species around the world throughout its season, thereby extending availability and optimizing the cost from week to week—even day to day—across the months any particular variety can be found somewhere—anywhere—on the globe. Often, he’s more like a weatherman than a purveyor of fine foods.

From France comes the elusive wild asparagus. Shhhhh.

From France comes the elusive wild asparagus. Shhhhh.

I asked him to describe the trajectory of that prized harbinger of spring, that lurker under cream that turned my first adult visit to France (with my first husband, in the spring of 1984) into an epicurean epiphany: the fresh morel.

The very first morels appear in the mountains of Turkey around Easter. For restaurants and epicureans, this signals the start of Morel Madness. At first, the pickings are sparse; the price Steve has to pay, and, thus, to charge, reflects this. But within a week or so, the morels are coming in by the pallet-load, and the prices drop. Soon though, “production” of the morel (it is a wild thing, uncultivatable; all you can do is learn its habits) shifts to Eastern Europe: ie Bulgaria and Serbia. After four weeks or so, it’s time to start looking to California and the Pacific Northwest. Once the morels are available here, import duties and freight charges can’t be justified, so Steve buys local. Unless the local prices are too high for some reason, in which case Steve will keep sourcing out of Eastern Europe.

Summer black truffles--but still pretty darned tasty.

Black summer truffles--but still pretty darned tasty.

Here, the pickers are all freelancers. Their foraging is a largely solitary affair, and when they come down from the mountains with their haul, buyers await at base camp. Bids and offers are traded, and deals are struck on the fly. This is a very pure form of capitalism: the simple laws of supply and demand dictate the price on any given day. If a free-lancer picker can’t get a reasonable return from his or her fresh shrooms, they might decide to dry them instead. In fact, dried morels form a far larger percentage of total morel consumption in this country, and a few months of fresh morel foraging fuels a year’s worth of supply. But the freelancer’s drying methods can lack finesse (sheet-pan on a tree-stump, say), and Steve prefers morels that are dried by pros, to best preserve every bit of earthy-woodsy perfume. When the Idaho-Oregon-Washington harvests are finished, Steve follows the morel north all the way to Alaska—where the dark and shriveled cuties can be found as late as August—and freight costs again begin to rise. Some professional circuit-pickers follow the harvest for three months.

This year, the domestic harvest of morels was slim. The reason lies two years in the past: huge tracts of land burned in Montana (the Tripod fire) and Idaho. Morels live in symbiotic harmony with the roots of trees. But they are asleep in the winter, and don’t know until they emerge whether their tree is alive or dead. When they find out, panic sets in. The tendrils, or mycellium, that are the true living organism, throw out a fleshy body for the purpose of releasing spores (this fleshy body is what we love to eat). In a panic, huge numbers of spores are needed to move the entire colony to another location, ie a living tree. Thus, lots more morels. But this past year, there weren’t many forest fires, so the mycellium are content to stay put and there are fewer fleshy bodies headed to a risotto near you.

And, lest we forget, The Most Expensive Beef in The World: Wagyu. Lookit that marbling!

And, lest we forget, The Most Expensive Beef in The World: Wagyu. Lookit that marbling!

I am well aware that the pursuit of peripatetic fungi is at odds with the local and sustainable food movement. But lots of people want to eat wild mushrooms, and the migrant mushroom pickers require coffee in the morning for motivation, and vanilla ice cream at night before bed, as reward.

In spring, I will absolutely gather my lamb from nearby Earlton, and my asparagus from New Jersey, but would be loathe to forgo artichokes, which hail from my home state of California. And without citrus, might we see a return of scurvy?

Whence the lime for my margarita, in March?

Frankly, Scarlet…


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