Canadian FunGuy’s Joseph Brennan is the owner and chief forager behind this small Calgary-based family business. He set Canadian FunGuy up online in 2020 to sell wild foods. Joseph is a professional wild crafter. What does that mean?
Wild foods are edible fresh or dried fruits, mushrooms, plants and vegetables. And, wildcrafting is the practice of foraging for and harvesting plants from their natural, or ‘wild’ habitat, primarily for food or medicinal purposes. Joseph emphasizes that wildcrafting is done with sustainability always top of mind. How does one become a professional forager? As Joseph explains, it usually happens quite naturally.
The Making of a Professional Forager
Canadian FunGuy’s Joseph Brennan was born in Whitehorse in Canada’s Yukon Territory. Growing up, his family always foraged. “We especially sought morels. Wherever there was a forest fire one summer, we knew they’d be growing there the next year.”
My experience of Yukon people is they haven’t lost touch with nature. Joseph is living proof of that.
“I’m 100 percent outdoorsman,” he says. “The greatest foragers are people who spend a lot of time in the woods. They become more in tune with our natural surroundings. And, that leads to awareness of what’s there. I enjoy every minute of being out there.”
This must be true because last year Joseph spent 107 days living out of a tent during his foraging expeditions. And, often his wife and 9 year old son were along for the adventure. Joseph and his crew pick from May to December each year across Western Canada.
“For the first 15 years I foraged, I stuck with morels,” Joseph says. Gradually, he added to his knowledge. He learned a lot from books. “Most of the knowledge is contained in about 50 books.” But, he also learned from other foragers and professional mycologists.
“There’s a saying in mushroom foraging: Only pick what you know!” Joseph may see thousands of mushrooms but he only knows 15 to 20 that are edible and those are the ones he sticks with. “It’s hard to admit but the rest are ALL poisonous.”
A Year in the Life of Canadian FunGuy’S JosePh Brennan
A year in Joseph’s life reflects the seasons. January and February he prepares equipment for the year. In March, he travels to the field to scout. Then, he starts setting up logistics for his team. He has to think about camp supplies, food and equipment for picking, sorting, packaging and shipping.
All these things change drastically depending on the type of mushroom they’re after, the season and the area they are travelling to. Sometimes they even use jet boats and helicopters to access highly sought after mushrooms.
For example, a high rolling expert picker can bring in 100 pounds in a day. And, when they are picking the most prized mushroom – the Matsutaki Pine Mushroom – there’s a very good return on the investment spent to access them. Depending on the season the Matsutakis can bring anywhere from $30 to $150 per pound. As mentioned, Joseph knows and picks 15 to 20 kinds of mushrooms.
All the Mushrooms
Morels are always the first mushroom of the season. Then less exotic varities lilke Sheep Polipore, Hawk’s Wing and Red Capped and King Boletes (aka cepes, porcini, king oyster) come along. In the fall, he’ll find Golden and White Chanterelles, Hedge Hogs, Lobster, Cauliflower, Chawga, Hawk’s Wing, and Turkey Tail. The Matsutaki and Winter Chanterelles are the last push of the season.
The Mushroom Market
Now, he has his own warehouse for storing and selling dried products. Plus, he’s also taking on growing fresh organic commercial varieties. Where he used to work in oil and gas to make ends meet in the off season, his goal now is to make a year round living from his foraging and cultivating lifestyle.
Other wild foods that Canadian FunGuy crew forages for include fiddleheads, huckleberries, spruce tips and other wild berries. What keeps him going?
“You have to be passionate about it. Our camps are an interesting mix of people. There’s everyone from the homeless to people with multiple degrees.” In a typical year, Joseph hikes over 3000 kilometers and puts about 30,000 kilometers on his truck.
He sees grizzly bears, moose and fox on a regular basis and the only “weapon” he carries is an Exacto knife. “I think animals sense by your scent that you are comfortable, that you belong there. I’ve had to ask bears to leave (and they do!) but I’ve never been afraid.” And what about the future?
Wild is the New Organic
“I think wild foods are the new organic,” he says. “They are guaranteed to have no chemicals.” And after picking anywhere from four to 10 baskets a day for 100 or so days a year, he can attest to their value.
Canada is the biggest producer of wild foods in the world. Millions of dollars of wild mushrooms are harvested here each year. Northern Saskatchewan Golden Chanterelles are considered the best in the world.
While Canadian FunGuy’s chief customers are all individuals currently, Joseph hopes to land a few key restaurant contracts. He also dreams of writing a foraging field guide one day and of being an industry leader.
I couldn’t let him go without talking about his favourite ways to cook with mushrooms. “I think the classic Morels in Cream Sauce is my all-time favourite,” he shared. “But we also sell mushroom powders because they boost the flavour of dishes so well. I’ve added Chanterelle powder to my Upside Down Apple Cake and it was phenomenal. They’re also a perfect addition to pâte.”
I’m not so sure about the Upside-Down Apple Cake idea but I did like the sound of a Morel Cream Sauce. Stay tuned for the next post where I’ll share the recipe I developed for Foraged Mushroom Cream Sauce.