Where Have All the Cèpes Gone?
LAC LABELLE, Quebec — The leaves are almost gone now, after a spectacular display. The noisy formations of geese have flown south; imprints of deer hooves and even a black bear’s paws have replaced the kayaks and sand castles on the beach. Mournful loons have the lake to themselves. That’s the way it’s been every year on the Laurentian lake by which my family has spent its summers forever. But things are not the same.
This year, for the first time, I found only a few lonely cèpes. To the uninitiated, which includes most North Americans, this is the greatest of all mushrooms: the king bolete, porcini to Italians, steinpilz to Germans, Boletus edulis to scientists. Firm and thick, the cap reddish to brown, its flesh stays white when broken, which is why Russians know it as the belyi grib, the white mushroom. It is seriously delicious.
Mushrooms are the main reason we’ve tried to be here in late summer and early fall. That’s when the feast would begin, when the cèpes would burst through the mosses and dead leaves and a heavy rain would raise a galaxy of glowing saffron milk caps under the firs and spruces, finally joining the prolific yellow chanterelles that had been filling our baskets already for weeks. We would sauté them with butter and onions, mix them into an omelet or into risotto or marinate them for the winter.
Maybe this was just that kind of summer. Fungi are fickle. There have been summers when the biggest baskets couldn’t hold a morning’s harvest, others when pickings were slim. But it’s just not been the same in recent years, for better and for worse. Chanterelles have been appearing in profusion all summer, dotting moss beds with their yellow caps. This year there was a brief explosion of saffron milk caps, but it stopped as abruptly as it began. But to have barely any cèpes is strange.
In America and in Canada, many people have a fear of wild mushrooms — one that I strongly encourage, to limit competition — so most people wouldn’t have noticed, or cared, about what’s happening to them. By way of a footnote, the limited familiarity with these most delectable fruits of northern forests is evident to anyone who tries to write about them and is compelled to rely on names like “saffron milk caps.” Across northern Europe and Asia, where kids often learn to distinguish the delicious from the deadly from early childhood, the edible ones have popular nicknames that everyone knows.
I have not yet found studies on the impact of climate change on mushrooms in the Laurentians. But mushroom-picking sites, like Mushroom-Collecting.com, have noted the growing scarcity of cèpes. There is no question that the balance of the seasons has changed, and changed dramatically, on the lake, and that can’t but have an impact on fungi. According to Canadian experts who have analyzed a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, southern Quebec and Ontario are, overall, warming twice as rapidly as the rest of the world and will continue doing so. Summers have become noticeably longer and winters shorter. Forest fungi, incidentally, play an important role in combating climate change by absorbing disproportionate quantities of carbon.
A longer summer may sound nice, but on our lake, blooms of blue-green algae have become more common and the lake bottom muckier, and hardier small-mouthed bass have pushed out more delicate varieties. The proliferation of cottages and boats is much to blame, of course, but not for the fact that the lake freezes much later in the year and thaws earlier. In the summer, violent storms have become more common, littering the forest with uprooted trees. Six trees were downed on our lot this spring, two onto a power line. Wild turkeys, once nearly extinct, are everywhere now, apparently in part because of milder winters.
Still, I’m not prepared to write off cèpes or any of the other mushrooms we pick. The forest has its own rhythms and not only because of climate change. Mushroom aficionados all have theories about what causes this or that variety to appear, but the exact balance of temperature, moisture, sunshine and season remains a mystery.
The chanterelles this year were endless, cropping up in the same spots day after day, as did many mushrooms we don’t touch. So as the last leaves fall, I want to believe that this year’s cèpe deficit will make for a bonanza next year.