Wild Food Season in the Pacific Northwest
As the endless Pacific Northwest summer sun gives way to the far more notorious winter gloom, the height of harvest season begins. Crisp apples and pears plucked straight from the orchard, small batches of beer brewed with fresh Cascadian Hops, and decadent harvest dinners hosted at family-run vineyards make autumn the perfect time for a foodie-focused trip.
The same wet weather and cooler temperatures that signal agricultural harvests are helping the PNW’s forests and oceans create culinary delights of their own. Fall is famously the best time to wander the woods in search of edible mushrooms. And as locals will tell you, months ending in “R” are definitely the best– and arguably the only– months for eating wild caught shellfish. If you find the idea of procuring the evening meal by spending a day lost in the mossy forests or perched on a rickety dock, it’s easier than you may think with a little local assistance.
Oregon’s 350 miles of coastline would be a fitting place to begin your wild food quest, as many of these blue collar beach towns owe their existence to big city appetites for shellfish.
In Pacific City, a local fisherman will take you on the waves in his dory boat as you troll for dungeness crab and cast for salmon (which, conveniently, are also at their peak here in September and October). End the journey with an old fashioned crab boil. Or, for a more elevated option, have a chef prepare your catch to enjoy at a local lodge.
If you prefer to keep both feet on somewhat solid ground, a shellfish licence, a crab pot rental and a couple of raw chicken legs are all you need to spend the day alongside the locals on Garibaldi’s public crabbing pier. Pass the time between pulls spotting seals and seabirds in the placid cove, or drop your trap and slip into a watering hole across the bay while you wait. If you don’t come away with anything large enough to keep, the local crab shack will be more than happy to sell you their catch, best enjoyed drenched in butter at a scenic picnic table.
Clams, oysters and mussels are also at their best late into the year when they are at their largest. A seasoned shellfish expert can take you out into Netarts Bay armed with shovels and buckets to harvest a haul for an evening feast. While you’re out, your guide can also point out edible seaweed that will compliment your beachside clambake. The hunt can be thrilling, but you’ll want to pause for a few moments to take in the expanses of empty beach and poke around in a few tidepools.
From the beach, you won’t need to go far to reach the Coastal Range where fungi thrive in the damp but mild autumn weather. For a more dramatic change of scenery, the fir forests below timberline on a Cascade volcano or Puget Sound’s island are other great places to look.
Your first foraging experience can be intimidating. Fungophobia is rampant due to tales of mushroom hunts with unhappy endings. However, you can forage without fear alongside an experienced mycologist who can help you spot safe mushrooms like chanterelles, lobsters, porcinis and slippery jacks poking through the mossy undergrowth.
Several of the most common fall fungi lack dangerous lookalikes, making them great options for budding mycologists to gather and cook up on their own. Even if you don’t leave with baskets full of mushrooms, you will come away with a day spent in the peaceful Cascadian forests and hopefully the knowledge to identify a few key species for your next outing.
For those who don’t dream of days spent with eyes glued to the forest floor or measuring scuttling crustaceans, there are still options to foray into the wild food movement. Restaurants have long touted farm-to-table status, but field-to-table cuisine and foraged fine dining have also become popular in the Pacific Northwest. Famed mushroom mecca Joel Palmer House in Oregon Wine Country has a five-course mycological-themed tasting menu featuring eight different varieties, including candy cap mushrooms for dessert.
Nearby vineyard Sokol Blosser offers a Farm & Forage lunch which can feature a variety of found foods ranging from wild mushrooms to nettles and wild-grown salad greens paired with their wines.
Foodie favorite Willows Inn on Lummi Island is known for incorporating wild foraged mushrooms as well as unique items like crab apple blossoms or fermented wildflowers.
If you are ready to get your hands dirty, or even if you prefer to learn from a distance, you will certainly have a richer appreciation for the passion and work required to procure your favorite delicacies and a deeper connection to the environment that produced them.
Looking for more Pacific Northwest inspiration? Check out our Pacific Coast and Willamette Valley itinerary.