Clark Barlowe is about to commit an illegal act.
The chef is out where he often is on Sunday afternoons when his Charlotte restaurant, Heirloom, is closed. He’s in the woods with his girlfriend, Gracelyn Cruden, and their dog, a big shar pei named Winnie, looking for mushrooms.
Skirting a hillside and following a creek, he spots a fallen tree bristling with fungi so delicate, it looks as if butterfly wings have sprouted from the bark.
“Hey, hey, what did I say?” he says, crouching down for a closer look. “That’s awesome.”
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Now, here comes the illegal part: Besides being a chef with an obsessive interest in cooking with only North Carolina-grown or -produced food, Barlowe also is a forager. In addition to buying mushrooms raised on a farm, he likes to get out in the woods and find mushrooms he serves to customers at his restaurant.
While the interest in wild mushrooms is growing – part of the trend toward locally grown ingredients – serving mushrooms found in the wild is a violation of state regulations. Many mushrooms found in the wild are safe, but there are lookalikes that can be toxic, even fatal. It takes an experienced forager to tell the difference, but the state doesn’t provide a program for safely identifying them.
Barlowe didn’t collect the mushrooms he saw that Sunday afternoon. He was just out showing a reporter around. But he often does. Depending on the season, his restaurant’s walk-in cooler may be loaded with chanterelles, lobster mushrooms or big clumps of hen-of-the-woods. Partly, his love of mushrooms is an interest in using what grows naturally. But there are also things that grow wild that you can’t get from a domestic grower.
For now, Barlowe is defying state regulations, which don’t allow sale of wild-foraged mushrooms. Mecklenburg County health inspectors can deduct points from Barlowe’s rating and confiscate his mushrooms. So far, that hasn’t happened, although he admits he is careful not to have mushrooms in the restaurant if an inspection is due.
He’s risking it for a reason, though. Barlowe and others interested in the growing trend for wild-foraged food are pushing the state legislature to take action in the spring and create a program to train and license mushroom foragers.
“We need some people to get behind this,” says Dr. Marcus Plescia, director of the Mecklenburg County Health Department. He knows what Barlowe is doing, and why. And while he says the department can’t condone it, he also thinks the state needs to find ways to help experienced foragers such as Barlowe gather wild ingredients.
“I think using foraged mushrooms is very, very safe if you know what you’re doing. It’s not something I see as a big public health threat.”
Plescia also thinks that if the state doesn’t find a way to make foraging legal, illegal foraging will still go on, possibly by people who have a lot less experience.
“We want restaurants to be creative and experimental,” Plescia says. “We also want them to be safe. There’s got to be somebody who can make sure the restaurants that want to do foraging are doing so in a safe way.”
Barlowe says Plescia is aware that he serves wild mushrooms at Heirloom when they’re in season.
“I don’t think it’s a surprising thing to any (health department officials),” Barlowe says. “They know people are serving chanterelles and morels. That’s why they want it fixed.”
South Carolina’s program
In wild-mushroom foraging, South Carolina is way ahead of North Carolina. In 2013, when South Carolina updated its health code, it created a program to train and license foragers.
Tradd Cotter of Mushroom Mountain, a mushroom-growing facility in Easley, S.C., runs the state’s only approved training program, a two-day course approved by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. For $463, someone who passes the course gets a five-year license to gather and sell mushrooms, mostly to restaurants that pay a premium for them.
So far, Cotter has trained more than 70 foragers, and his course usually has a waiting list. While some students are wild-foods buffs, others are chefs themselves.
“The trend lately is foraging,” he says. “A lot of chefs are coming in. Number one, they can save a little money doing it themselves. And it’s part of the whole mystique – ‘Hey, the chef is going out and collecting himself.’ It’s very European.”
Even chefs who don’t plan to get their shoes muddy take the course so they can identify what they’re getting from foragers.
A microbiologist himself, Cotter designed South Carolina’s program and came up with the list of 20 approved mushrooms out of approximately 3,000 that grow in the region. He says he’s been contacted by other states, including Georgia and North Carolina, that are interested in his curriculum.
Training mushroom hunters isn’t as easy as watching a slideshow, he says. The course includes a detailed exam, plus training on the ethics of the woods, packaging, storage, processing and record-keeping. As a toxicologist who often helps poison control centers with emergencies, he is a stickler for details.
With the interest in foraging on the rise, he worries about people who take short courses aimed at amateurs.
Some people “know just enough to be dangerous,” he says. “My group, I drill it into their brains and scare the hell out of them. Scare them just enough to respect it.”
Who’s a mushroom expert?
North Carolina’s food code, based on federal guidelines, says wild-picked mushrooms have to be inspected by “an approved mushroom expert.” But it doesn’t define what an approved expert is. That frustrates everyone from officials like Plescia to chefs like Barlowe.
Changes in the state’s 232-page Food Code Manual are never simple. The eight-chapter document covers everything involving food protection and sanitation for every business that prepares or sells food. In 2009, the state adopted the code based on the federal version from the Food and Drug Administration. Right now, every change has to be approved by the legislature.
This spring, the state is considering a change that would allow the Commission for Public Health to adopt changes in the federal code more easily. As part of that, the state could add a program for foragers similar to what South Carolina has.
Cindy Callahan, the facilities branch head for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, which works with county health departments, says the state is forming a committee to consider a mushroom license.
“We’ve known there is a need for it,” she says. “We’re just waiting for some guidance from the FDA. What we’re planning to do is look at a guidance document for a model wild-harvested mushroom program.”
Currently, mushrooms sold in restaurants have to be raised domestically, with certification as both a farm and a food producer. The only cultivated mushroom producer in Mecklenburg County is Urban Gourmet Farms, off Griffith Road.
Barlowe buys mushrooms from Urban Gourmet. But he also got interested in foraging as a kid, when his grandfather would take him out fishing. If the fish weren’t biting, they’d go into the woods and see what else they could find. As a young chef, he met his mentor, mycologist Ken Crouse, and got serious about Southern wild mushrooms.
Every week, Barlowe says, people send him pictures, asking if a mushroom they found is safe. But it isn’t that simple, he says. Identifying safe mushrooms is complicated and can hinge on subtle differences such as what tree it grew on.
“That’s the thing about foraging right now that makes me apprehensive,” he says. “People are not doing things the way I think they should be.”
Be aware of mushroom risks
The Carolinas Poison Center at Carolinas Medical Center says several species of mushrooms that grow wild in North Carolina are toxic, causing everything from severe nausea, vomiting and diarrhea to liver damage and death. Although no deaths have been reported since 2012, reports of exposure to toxic mushrooms in humans average about 190 cases a year statewide.
One of the biggest concerns, according to Anna Dulaney, a clinical pharmacist and toxicologist at the center, involves people who move here from other countries and prepare toxic mushrooms that look like mushrooms that were safe in their home countries.
If you believe you have eaten a wild mushroom that might be toxic, contact the center, 800-222-1222 statewide or 704-355-4000 in Mecklenburg County.