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Fungi Lover Stalks the Wild Mushroom for Fun and Profit

June 18, 1989|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | Times Staff Writer

Mohamad Ismail is frankly fond of fungi. The 35-year-old Playa del Rey man collects them for fun and profit.

Ismail, who owns Pacific Exotic Mushrooms in Van Nuys, is one of a handful of Southern Californians who supply local restaurants and produce companies with wild mushrooms. The demand, he said, is considerable. "Every major Westside restaurant that has a menu item over $10 wants chanterelles, morels or porcini mushrooms."

Ismail, who has been gathering commercially since 1982, has sold to La Toque, Spago, Michael's and other well-known restaurants in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. He also dries and sells wild mushrooms under his own label.

A fungiphile before he was a myco-merchant, Ismail first hunted local mushrooms for the sheer pleasure of finding something scrumptious growing in the wild. He started out during his undergraduate days at UCLA, gathering chanterelles, yellow mushrooms that smell like apricots and thrive in the local mountains during the wet winter months.

Amazing Variety

"My goal at that point was to go out and find something to eat once or twice a week," Ismail said. He recalls leafing through the hefty Audubon Field Guide to North American Mushrooms and thinking, "My God, there can't be this many mushrooms." Since then, he has verified the existence of hundreds of species with his own eyes.

Most fungi thrive on moisture, Ismail said, and Southern California is usually too dry to be prime mushroom territory. "We don't have that many good years," he said, "and we haven't had a good year since 1984-85."

Wild mushrooms are also seasonal. The morels, as sure a harbinger of spring as income taxes, have already disappeared from the San Bernardino Mountains and the Sierra. But Ismail recently harvested 50 pounds of giant puffball mushrooms in the San Bernardinos, leaving all but the choicest specimens unpicked. "I left behind 100 pounds, easy. They were past their prime, and I couldn't sell them." Slices of puffball, Ismail pointed out, are terrific on pizza.

To keep his clients in wild mushrooms during the local off-season, Ismail usually goes to the Pacific Northwest each year between August and October. In Washington and Oregon, mushrooms thrive in the moist forests like, well, mushrooms.

While in the Northwest, Ismail presents slide shows, training others to identify commercially valuable mushrooms and giving pointers on how to find them. Morels, for instance, flourish on ground that has been burned over.

As a result, Ismail said, "I know there are going to be hundreds of pickers converging on Yellowstone." (People who gather mushrooms commercially almost always need a permit to pick on public land. Non-pros should also check on the conditions under which they can gather.)

Ismail earned a master's degree studying mycology--the science of fungi--at the University of New Brunswick in Canada.

Only in Wild

Unlike the white buttons in the supermarket, some of the most popular wild mushrooms, including chanterelles, morels and porcini mushrooms, cannot be cultivated, Ismail said. As a result, chanterelles may sell for as much as $18 a pound, morels for even more.

To stalk the wild mushroom Ismail wears a simple uniform--jeans, hiking boots and "my mushroom shirt," a black sweat shirt with long sleeves to protect his arms from brambles and nature's other scratchers and stingers.

He uses a hunting knife to harvest the mushrooms and carries his treasure home in 5-gallon plastic buckets. Ismail isn't as proprietary about his choice hunting grounds as some of his colleagues, who place sentries with walkie-talkies around their secret places. But he doesn't hand out maps either.

Ismail loves being in the wild on these expeditions. "Sometimes it's almost a religious experience out there," he said. "Once you get hooked on mushrooms, you can't get them out of your system." Mushrooms are extraordinary in their variety, he noted. Some look like undersea corals, some like floor mats. Some smell like pine, others like shrimp and maple syrup. They are every imaginable color, including bright purple--and some exude a blood-red liquid when bruised. There are as many flavors as there are varieties.

Losing Directions

Like other wilderness activities, mushroom hunting has its perils. "I never get lost in the woods, but sometimes I get turned around," Ismail said. He once became disoriented in an early snowfall while looking for American matsutake mushrooms in the Siskiyou Mountains, near the California-Oregon border.

He wandered in the snow for an hour or two until the sun suddenly came out and revealed the path below. "It took me two hours to get up that ridge. I was down in 10 minutes," he said.

He has heard wild boar while mushroom hunting, but the only injury he has suffered was a severe sting after he dropped his knife into a bee hive.

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