David Carmichael still remembers the day, more than 50 years ago, when he went on a mushroom hunt with his father and came across the mother lode: Thousands of morels in an Indiana wood.
“It was like nothing I’ve ever seen before or since,” said Carmichael, a retired air traffic controller who has become an informal leader of western Loudoun’s growing foraging movement.
And while Carmichael supplies found foods to several of the county’s best restaurants, foraging remains mostly about the sheer joy of it.
“It’s like an adult Easter egg hunt,” he said. “Every time I go out in the woods now, I get a little bit of that 6-year-old with my dad.”
On a gorgeous fall morning last month, Carmichael, a mushroom specialist, hit the woods behind his home near Lovettsville to look for some of fall’s fungi bonanza—some of the tastiest mushrooms around, including the sought-after hen of the woods, a bracket mushroom that’s partial to distressed or downed oak trees. And while the famed morel is in season in spring, fall is actually where it’s at for foragers.
“This is the best time of year for finding lots of edible mushrooms,” Carmichael said.
With a family history of foraging that spans generations, this mushroom hunter learned to love the hunt for wild plants and fungi in his preschool days. But Carmichael’s food finding truly took off a few years ago when he retired, and he credits the wealth of information available online, including foraging groups and videos on social media.
“I’ve actually learned more in the last five years than I’ve ever learned,” he said. “Before, you’d have to go to the library and find a book that would hopefully suit your needs, and now really the world is at your fingertips.”
Carmichael is at the core of a group of likeminded food finders in the Lovettsville area, including Loudoun-based gardening columnist and podcaster Marianne Wilburn who, along with Carmichael, serves as a mentor for fellow foragers. Carmichael launched Foraging The 20180 Facebook group last year and more recently created Foraging The 20180 YouTube channel, where his homey and informative talks on everything from mushroom hunting to cider pressing (using a homemade press made from a car jack) have a mini cult following in the Lovettsville ZIP code and beyond.
And while fungi are Carmichael’s first love and primary passion, there are plenty of edible plants to be found in fall. One of his favorites is the autumn olive, a tart wild berry high in lycopene, the antioxidant found in tomatoes.
Autumn olives, along with a host of other found foods, have frequently graced the menu at The Restaurant at Patowmack Farm near Lovettsville, where award-winning chef Tarver King is known for locally sourced produce, much of which is cultivated—or found—on the restaurant’s 40-acre property.
King has made both ketchup and barbecue sauce from tangy local autumn olives (“each one was equally amazing,” he said). And he finds plenty of other ingredients on the farm, including greens and fruit. Virginia’s famed pawpaw season is coming to an end, with wild persimmons coming on around Thanksgiving.
“A lot of these foods you wonder why they’re not on the menu everywhere—like pawpaws for example. Those things are so good, I don’t understand why they’re not on McDonald’s menu. They’re like nature’s banana cream pie grown on a tree.” King said with a laugh.
“It really does encompass quite a wide gamut of ingredients that we use throughout the year. For most people, when you say foraged ingredients, you expect to see mushrooms, but it’s actually so many things,” he said. “Probably 90 percent of the weeds that grow are edible and extremely tasty—like sorrel and lamb’s quarter, stinging nettles and stuff like that that we use constantly.”
And even the trees themselves become ingredient; the restaurant is currently serving a pork dish smoked with hickory bark and braised in a hickory bark broth.
Like Carmichael, King has a lifelong history of foraging and remembers picking wild sorrel as a kid to concoct “sour grass” drinks and learning to hunt for mushrooms in the Maine woods.
Both Carmichael and King advise caution for novice foragers—especially where mushrooms are concerned. Since there are so many poisonous fungi, including look-alikes resembling sought-after mushrooms like morels and chanterelles, lots of research and connections with more experienced foragers are key when starting out.
But King says the risk is extremely low when a chef with a solid knowledge base deals with a trusted network of educated foragers. And the flavors, he says, just can’t be beat.
“Nothing is more local or organic than wild food. It was in that search for the best ingredients or finding things unique that you eventually come to the realization that there are lots of things out there in the woods and fields or right under your nose that are unbelievably amazing.”