British Columbia surf town Tofino turns into a mushroom forager’s paradise each year. Writer Kathryn Romeyn tags along with Wolf in the Fog staff and alums to forage for a fungi-meets-seafood feast.
“Mornings like this make it feel pretty magical,” says the bearded, beanie-capped chef Nick Nutting, of Canada’s acclaimed Wolf in the Fog restaurant, as he navigates his van down a dirt logging road near Tofino’s Kennedy Lake. A dense fog is turning the tall coniferous treetops into seeming mirages, casting a golden glow that feels downright mystical: I wouldn’t be surprised if a fairy flitted out of the misty rays of light.
This dramatic fog phenomenon rolls into British Columbia’s small surf town at Tofino—a favorite summertime destination on Vancouver Island for surfing, whale-watching and black bear tours, and hot springs—each August. Paired with opportune rainfall, optimal conditions are set for mushroom season, which lingers well into fall. Here, matsutakes, chanterelles, porcinis, hedgehogs, angel wings, coral mushrooms—more mushroom varieties than one can easily fathom—crop up in the thick forest of soldier-straight pines and plush mossy carpets beside Pacific Rim National Park Reserve (foraging is illegal within the park’s perimeters). It’s September when we visit, and they’re still rapidly emerging, some in mammoth sizes. We’re off in hot pursuit.
It’s my first time foraging, and it turns out to be a gorgeous and exceedingly peaceful, quiet, and even contemplative experience; something akin to forest bathing, perhaps. Elsewhere there are hippie-type professional foragers camped out in surfboard-topped vans who are a tad more aggressive in their collecting—they’re making a living off of vending the edible prizes to area restaurants, after all—but we’re here, along with Nutting’s wife, Hailey Pasemko, on a far mellower outing. (As the bar manager for Wolf in the Fog, she has her eye on berries to infuse or make syrups for cocktails.)
My harvesting journey feels like the ultimate Easter egg hunt, with candy-filled plastic orbs swapped out for coveted fungus the color of gilt. Chef Nutting schools me on optimized harvesting technique: Never yank mushrooms from the ground, but instead cut cleanly at their bases with a pocket knife so that they might regrow faster. The basketful we collect will be cooked by him back at Wolf in the Fog, where a casual atmosphere belies the world-class cuisine turned out, and where the ’shrooms are destined to pair beautifully with “whatever you pull out of the sea,” says Nutting.
Fishing in Tofino
Just after dawn the next morning, we hit the deck of ponytailed fisherman Joel Nikiforuk’s 12-passenger Linda Sue II, which runs trips for Tofino 1st Class Fishing. A former Wolf in the Fog cook and a native of Tofino, Nikiforuk debuted an appealing “Catch & Cook” package in collaboration with the restaurant this summer. Available for up to six people traveling together, the package can be designed from a half-day to up to three full days of fishing with him (note that accommodations are made independently), culminating in a multicourse dinner of their catches at the bi-level restaurant.
Nikiforuk, who comes from a line of commercial fishermen, has lived and breathed fishing all his life on this island and is a wealth of knowledge on virtually any subject relating to this literal one-taxi town with a bylaw that there will never be a chain like McDonald’s or Starbucks. Instead it’s a place supportive of small business, as evidenced by delicious homegrown products like Tofino Brewing Co., Chocolate Tofino, Tofino Craft Distillery, and Tofino Kombucha. “It’s kind of like the old-school model of a village, the butcher, the baker,” says Nutting.
The bounty spills over into the tourism industry. The classic waterfront Pacific Sands Beach Resort, for instance, is a strong champion of this grassroots movement, stocking local Sea Wench skincare amenities and Tofino Coffee Roasting Co. brew in its kitchen-outfitted suites and beach houses. The resort was just updated with 43 new suites and saw a summer visit from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and family.
“If we get a bite, timing is imperative,” warns Nikiforuk early on. “We have three to four seconds to get it hooked and on the line, and then you are going to fight him—that’s of course if we even get one.” Eyes fixed on the radar screen we wait, wait, and wait some more, chatting about anything and everything, before the big moment arrives and I successfully reel in my first silvery eight-pound salmon.
Next, we successfully diversify tonight’s menu by snatching up bright blue lingcod, copper rockfish, black bass, and even a dinosaur-like creature called cabezon (scorpion fish) with toad-like skin and a face not even a mother could love (which happily, tasted far better than it looked). All the while we kept our tips up, ensured the line didn’t go slack and, with tiny herring as bait, “got jiggy with it,” bouncing the weight off the rocky bottom of the ocean in a repetitive move that was a lot more of a workout than one would think. After a respectable haul, we return to the harbor, stopping along the way to pull up crab traps that had been set a few days prior, revealing a trio of beautiful Dungeness crabs.
It’s mere hours later when our feast at Wolf in the Fog begins, served in seven savory family-style courses, plus a light dessert highlighting berries we had foraged yesterday. Nutting has paired our own foraging and fishing booty with fresh fare from the Tofino Ucluelet Culinary Guild, which works with sustainable, pesticide-free farmers on Vancouver Island to distribute their produce to eager chefs here. (Nutting is the most eager, buying for his restaurant what all others in Tofino order combined.) Then there are the multicourse wine pairings from B.C.’s Okanagan Valley.
There’s lightly tempuraed cabezon and fried pork jowl with sugary Canary melons in a fish sauce, coconut milk, lime, chili jam, and green papaya concoction. Lingcod that’s gone from electric blue to milky white with cooking, served in a memorable beurre blanc made from a local verjus with an Okanagan fruit salad. We scoop up crab and matsutake risotto out of the shell; shovel in prosciutto-wrapped black bass, porcinis, and Admirable boletes on toast; and savor grilled salmon belly covered in chanterelles.
It’s not my imagination: Each bite tastes more satisfying, personal, and stimulating, thanks to the ingredients I contributed with my own two hands.