Stooped, we fan out into the woods, armed with paper bags and paring knives, treading carefully to avoid crushing our quarry. A shout from our guide, Peter, and we converge on a cluster of brown-capped mushrooms, nearly invisible against the autumn underbrush. “Fawn mushrooms,” Peter says, and he demonstrates how to sever the stem without disturbing the bulb. “You want to leave all that energy in the ground,” he explains. It’s a sunny, clear day and surprisingly mild for mid-November—most of us aren’t even wearing gloves—a perfect end to the season for Puck’s Plenty Foraging Tours.
Even before he moved to Stratford, Ontario, in 2005, owner Peter Blush was an avid hiker, but it was the woods of Perth County that got him interested in wild edibles. “I’ll never forget stepping into the forest and noticing right away that the ground cover was wild leeks,” he recalls.
On his next walk, he brought a friend, local biologist Linda Walton. “Something curious happened during that outing,” says Peter. “Linda hardly ever looked at the ground. She seemed to constantly be studying the trees.” Linda had noticed that they were in a prime mushroom forest.
Peter began to supply restaurants in nearby communities with locally foraged wild edibles. In the spring, he could provide wild leeks, fiddleheads, trout lilies, cattail shoots, marsh marigolds and pheasant back mushrooms. More varieties of mushrooms appeared in the summer, along with puffballs, wild watercress and pineapple weed. Autumn produced blewits, velvet foots, wild ginger, and honey and red pine mushrooms.
The bounty was extraordinary, but over time, Peter worried about the environmental impact of his activities. “I began to feel uncomfortable taking that many wild foods—especially plants—from the forest,” he explains. Looking for a way to mitigate the effect of his activities without giving up his passion for foraging and wild edibles, Peter opened Puck’s Plenty in 2010.
Every Saturday, Sunday and on holidays from mid-April to mid-November, Peter guides small groups on his Forage Only tours in the region around Stratford. His Forage & Feast events take place seven times annually, adding a meal made with wild edibles at a local restaurant to end the day. As for the name, it’s as tied to the region as everything else in the area is. “Many business names derive from the Stratford Shakespeare festival,” Peter says. “I chose Puck because he is a character from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He foraged for medicinal plants for the fairy king, Oberon.”
Even before we’ve left the first trail, most people’s bags are overflowing. “We should find some blewits at our next stop,” Peter says, and we follow him out to the road, eager to see these blue-tinged mushrooms for ourselves. After a short convoy to a second location, our group hikes through a marshy area, popping out on the edge of a wood.
An eagle-eyed forager spots something bright and round in the underbrush. “A puffball,” Peter says. “One of the last of the season.” He slices it open to expose the spongy white flesh—perfect for sautéing. We would never have spotted our next species without Peter’s expertise. He approaches a dead maple and finds a seam in the callused bark. With gentle pressure, he pulls it back to reveal a cluster of orange mushrooms. “Velvet foot,” he says.
Foraging is nothing new, of course, but modern living has divorced many of us from nature, and our knowledge has been lost over time. Indeed, it’s an increasing interest in local and sustainable foods that has encouraged many of us out here to forgo our couches for the surprises of the woods. But while there’s romance in and relevance to the idea of living off the land, there is a caveat: the forests are home to things both nasty and nourishing—and often it’s not clear which is which.
“Especially for mushrooms, there is no set rule,” Peter says, adding that something as slight as the veil under the cap might be the answer to which is which. If you’re hunting for wild plants or mushrooms, he recommends carrying a well-illustrated book like the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms. “Too bad Socrates didn’t have one before he ate poison hemlock,” Peter says, wryly. Or have a guide like Puck.
Keph Senett is a Canadian freelance writer from Toronto whose passions for travel and soccer have led her to play the beautiful game on four continents. Her work has appeared in publications including The Globe and Mail, Ms online, and Sports Illustrated online. When not writing, she spends her free time trying to figure out how to qualify for a soccer squad in Asia, Australia, or Antarctica.