BEYOND THE GARDEN GATE: Spring 2016
author: Denny Manchee / photography: Irka Dyczok
Colourful, tasty, sometimes poisonous, fungi summon equal parts delight and fear. But when you know what you’re doing, they’re mmm-mmm good.
A WALK IN THE WOODS WITH IRKA DYCZOK IS A TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL. The forest floor, the stumps and trees, the undersides of leaf litter are alive with organisms whose purpose is death and decomposition, yet whose delicate flavour is sublime. Behold the beauty and diversity of fungi, a source of endless fascination and passionate foraging.
“To me, this whole relationship with the forest is coming to a sense of place within your heart and soul,” says Irka, whose deep connection to the land began when she was a free-range child in the summers near Grafton. “I spent a lot of time in the woods, and I always had this interest in fungi – the colours, textures and forms. I’d come across a mound of yellow and sit there and go, ‘where did this come from?’”
That driving curiousity is still there, and the interior designer and her husband now have their own 50-acre forest to explore on the Oak Ridges Moraine. This particular stand of mixed forest, rising and falling over steep undulations and channelling dappled sunlight from the canopy to the understory, is a magical environment for mushrooms. Irka has found about 300 species so far.
It’s been an education in mycology, enhanced by workshops offered by Toronto naturalist Richard Aaron, as well as voracious reading. Unlike many people who are drawn to mushrooms, Irka is not worried about being poisoned. “But early on it became evident to me that you have to learn about the fungal kingdom before you actually consume,” she says. “You have to learn the ones that are truly poisonous – like Amanita virosa, the Destroying Angel. There’s a small number that can kill you, but there are many other species that can make you sick.” In other words, do not eat wild mushrooms unless you can identify them without a shred of doubt.
As we scroll through the photographs on Irka’s laptop, the names trip off her tongue: Dryad’s Saddle, Chanterelles, Chaga (which looks like charred wood), King Bolete (porcini), Shaggy Mane, Tippler’s Bane (toxic when consumed with alcohol), Turkey Tail, Lobster mushrooms (reddish-orange, meaty and weighty). “That’s a Bear’s Head. It’s SO beautiful,” she says, “And look at this Pigskin Poison Puffball – I love the shape and they look like raku pots once they break up.
“It’s not just about the individual fungi, either,” she adds. “There are some that have symbiotic relationships with plants. They’re the Internet of the forest,” she says, brilliantly capturing the connection between mycorrhizal fungi and the plants and trees that share their habitat. In basic terms, this is about the masses of branching threads (mycelium) under the visible part of fungi that supply water and minerals to plants and receive sugars in return. What we see are the fruiting bodies, whose purpose is to spread spores and reproduce.
Some fungi make other plants healthier through their underground web, but there are others that are important as the forest’s major recyclers, says Richard Aaron. “They break down wood, dung, keratin – the protein in feathers, claws, hoofs – pine cones and other substrates into matter that can be reused.”
Irka has enormous respect for Aaron’s knowledge and has twice taken his three-day, intensive workshops at the Queen’s University Biological Station. “We would gather about 140 species of fungi in a workshop and identify them by physical features, spore prints, smell, habitat. We also learn the Latin names because so many mushrooms have multiple common names.”
All of this inquiry and investigation has fed an insatiable appetite to learn more, forage more and explore mushrooms’ endless subtleties of flavour. Eating them is second nature to Irka, who has Ukrainian heritage. “My grandparents would gather mushrooms. That was part of their culture.” What interests her now is discovering new recipes.
“We have a dehydrator, and I also pickle them and freeze them. But the best thing is just to eat them cooked fresh – some you have to eat within hours of picking because they deliquesce and turn into a puddle of inky liquid.”
Starting in April right through to October, she has all eyes fixed on the forest floor. “I often think mushrooms aren’t for the faint of heart, because it’s laborious and there are tiny critters,” she admits. “You have to clean them with a brush, delicately. Most mushrooms won’t take any soaking. You want to sort them and clean off as much dirt as possible before you even put them in your basket. Sometimes I have baskets within baskets if I’m gathering different kinds because some are more resilient than others.
”But the pay-off of this labour can be enormous. Irka opens a freezer bag and offers a sniff of yellow-footed chanterelles. “We gathered nine pounds of them last Thanksgiving!"
Towards the end of our walk we come to a grizzled totem of a once-majestic maple tree. “This is our guardian here, what’s left of him,” says Irka. “He’s kind of got one eye and a nose, and he’s fallen this way and that way. When we were building our house we had to come and talk to him because we felt a deep connection to the forest. We said to him we’d be stewards and we’d try to look after it.” Irka and Paul have kept that promise, and are fiercely protective of their patch of land. “Even foraging, you always ask permission, you don’t take more than you should.”
“I’m just totally enamoured,” she concludes. I’ve really developed respect for fungi and feel so fortunate that we’re living here and I’m able to experience them in these magical moments.”