There are 5,000 different mushroom varieties in the Lowcountry, and a goodly number of them have established residency at Caw Caw Interpretive Center. The park's wooded areas are a kind of mushroom metroplex: There's a cauliflower mushroom here, a scaly birch bolete there.
Or so mushroom picker Tradd Cotter claims. All I see is dirt and sticks and a stray beer can.
"You want to make yourself blind to brown and green," Cotter advises. "Don't try so hard. You have to unfocus and train your eyes to see little bumps of color."
As a professional mushroom grower and longtime hunt leader, Cotter can't help but see mushrooms. He swears he can identify roadside fungi while driving 80 mph. "It's worse than texting," he admits. Cotter is so mushroom-fixated that the first love letter he gave his now-wife, Olga, was scratched into the underbelly of a mushroom that bruises blue when nicked. He snuck it onto the forest floor for her to find "less than 24 hours after we met," he says, seemingly still amazed that he met someone who dreams of mushrooms, too.
When Cotter sees mushrooms, he sees beauty. And, oftentimes, dinner. But he also sees what's quite possibly the greatest get-rich-quick scheme ever facilitated by the natural world. His standard PowerPoint presentation includes a slide of a grinning Woodlands Inn chef, hoisting a 13-pound hen-of-the-woods mushroom Cotter found on his way to a Halloween party.
"I was a 21-year-old, no money at all," Cotter recalls. "I made $400 in one day with two mushrooms."
He showed up at the party with a keg of Newcastle.
Recognizing the economic value of a highly sustainable resource (as a defensive mechanism, mushrooms grow back in greater quantity when picked), South Carolina recently updated its health codes to make it easier for foragers to sell their bounty to chefs. Prior to 2013, the state was one of just three that barred the service of wild mushrooms in restaurants. Now, it stands to emerge as a national leader with a certification program for "mushroom identification experts" permitted to sell to restaurants.
"I guarantee you chefs would rather buy from someone who knows what they're doing," says Cotter, who this month led the state's first certification workshop.
As a chef in New York City, Nick McNevin grew accustomed to foragers at the kitchen door. "In New York, everyone's into the mindset of finding a new thing, because the competition is so fierce," he says. But since he's joined The Drawing Room as its sous chef, he's had far fewer visitors. Despite a longstanding black market for wild mushrooms ("You don't have to raise your hand, I know you've sold them," Cotter told the 32 workshop attendees), many local restaurants have opted to legally buy mushrooms from Oregon or California.
"A lot of the mushrooms are being flown in," Cotter says. "They're old, they're wormy."
McNevin initially tried to circumvent the system by picking his own mushrooms; as a boy in Australia, he'd learned how to distinguish the delicious from the toxic. "I thought it would be cool, instead of paying 30 bucks a pound," he says. But his supervisors looked askance at the arrangement, which is why he wound up enrolling in Cotter's course. Students who passed the certification exam would be allowed to collect and sell 20 kinds of mushrooms. For restaurant chefs, those represent 20 previously inaccessible seasonal flavors.
The mushrooms on the list weren't selected for their taste, although Cotter's asides during the two-day class frequently revealed which mushrooms are lemony; which mushrooms have peppery undertones; and which mushrooms are best prepared in cream sauce. Rather, Cotter, who DHEC tasked with putting together the certification program, says he aimed to assemble a list that would make screw-ups scarce. He avoided choosing any mushrooms that could be easily confused with poisonous lookalikes.
"I've seen very reputable mushroom hunters, who've been on shows, selling misidentified mushrooms," Cotter says. "I get a lot of calls from North Carolina: The chefs trust the pickers, and then they cook up jack o' lanterns for the whole dining room."
According to a website maintained by Cornell University's mycology department, jack o' lanterns "induce painful stomach cramps, diarrhea and vomiting. The symptoms pass within a day or two, but are pretty awful and most victims end up in the emergency room."
While the South Carolina certification is only valid in-state, Cotter suspects chefs in Charlotte and Asheville are likely to be eager to buy from pickers who can prove they've passed his course.
Cotter modeled the certification partly after a training-and-testing program developed by Maine, which in 2012 became the first state to adopt a comprehensive approach to regulating wild mushrooms in restaurants. Other states offer limited certifications: Minnesota licenses foragers to sell morels, for example, and Missouri allows those who have completed a three-hour class to sell chanterelles.
Participants in Cotter's class looked at pictures of white oyster mushrooms, dissected black trumpet mushrooms and took spore prints of chicken-of-the-woods mushrooms, but almost everyone who paid the $463 fee was drawn in by chanterelles. The golden, wavy-capped mushrooms are worth about $20 a pound, and they're bountiful in South Carolina.
"It's the moneymaker," Cotter says. "That's why it's great for the local economy. They're everywhere here. It's the gold belt."
Because of his busy schedule, Cotter isn't sure when he'll hold his next certification course. But he rushed to organize this month's program so certification-seekers would have the chance to harvest chanterelles, which flourish in late summer. Two days after the class concluded, Grow Food Carolina,which, along with the Coastal Conservation League, strongly backed the foraging rule changes, posted on its Facebook page, "Looking forward to chanterelles from South Carolina's first certified mushroom foragers! Hopefully only a few days out ..." No mushroom, except perhaps the elusive morel, inspires so much excitement among eaters.
Knowing how to distinguish chanterelles from destroying angels was the focus of Cotter's lectures, but he also slipped in marketing tips gleaned from two decades in the mushroom business: Don't wash them, since chefs hate paying for water weight. If they're old and fraying, dry them and sell the powder. "You can use it like breading," he promised.
When the class moved into the woods, Cotter repeatedly prompted his students, "Is this a chanterelle?" He urged them to bury their noses in the valuable mushroom until they were overwhelmed by its distinctive apricot aroma. "Record that smell in your brain. You're going to have a muscle memory of what to do."
Jimmy Livingston, who grows mushrooms for Mepkin Abbey, is confident he can recognize chanterelles, and he knows where to find them.
"I have five acres that's my super-secret chanterelle patch," he says. "We just have to make it legal so I can sell them."