My fingers smell like maple syrup and that’s not going to change anytime soon. I just put away a tray of candy cap mushrooms that were drying in my oven overnight, and the smell of them is so powerful and persistent that wafts of that smell will linger in my kitchen and on my person for days.
Until yesterday I had never gone foraging for mushrooms on purpose before, although I have had it in my mind to. I have occasionally picked up mushrooms on hikes with friends when the goal was supplementing our rations. In the backcountry of Big Sur once with a savvy crew we found a field of fat, pristine Chanterelles that were surprisingly radish-spicy peppery right out of the ground and rich, buttery, meaty, earthy when we grilled them on our little bunsen-burner camping stoves in the rain and ate them three meals a day for the rest of the trip. My desire for more has not faded even a little bit with the passage of years since that trip.
A crew from the restaurant has been going up North on Mondays to find mushrooms for the kitchen and they were nice enough to let me tag along. We had to go way north, partly because it has been a holiday weekend and the lower Sonoma Coast has been pretty well picked over but also because a downright tragic lack of winter rain in the Bay Area has left conditions much too dry for fungus to proliferate closer to home. So I curled up in the backseat of a cook’s Honda Civic at 4 am and headed out over the bridge to Northern California. I haven’t seen that much wake ‘n’ bake or so many 7-11 stops since UC Santa Cruz, but the bagels and lox made by headlamp in the backseat were killer and I really kinda dug the cranked-up Parliament after a few minutes. Listening to T-Rex as the sun came up over the Yorkville highlands in Anderson Valley was one of those surreal film-like perfect moments in life. I drank 4 cups of coffee.
We got way out into the woods. The roads kept getting smaller until we backed the Civic into some tire ruts off a logging road just as it was getting light enough to see in the woods. We found the first mushrooms-Hedgehogs glowing like some Hayao Miyazaki spirit creatures-in a little hollow about five feet away from the car and knew it was going to be a good day. The morning was bountiful. We had no problem filling our buckets with Hedgehogs, Yellowfoot Chanterelles, the much-coveted Black Trumpets, and my personal pet mushroom of the day, the Candy Caps (I have a little sweet tooth.) We found a little hollow about halfway through the morning that was eerily magical; carpeted with Yellowfoots and Candy Caps arranged around a stump with some incredible rainbow-colored Conks the size of a Texan’s hat brim. In that hollow were also miniscule glowing red mushrooms smaller than a pin head, yellow mushrooms hanging from the underside of a mossy log like something from Fantasia and myriad other fungus, ferns, and birds I could easily wear out my keyboard going on and on about.
After our peanut butter and jelly lunch break we headed farther back on the trail, away from the wetter areas we had hunted the morning. We were looking for oaks and pines and manzanetas, hoping to find some of the bigger, meatier Chanterelles I remembered from Big Sur and some Matsutakes that would be much-lauded at the restaurant. We found some different kinds- Pig’s Ear Chanterelles and the lethal Amanitas we are all paranoid about (Destroying Angels), but the pace flagged a little as the woods got drier and, with half-full buckets, we called it a day and pointed the Civic back towards the bay.
My Hedgehog miso soup last night was better than I expected-I didn’t know I liked Hedgehogs so much-but the Pig’s Ears were disappointingly bland. I think they were a little over-the-hill, and I learned my lesson about listening to the experts and only eating mushrooms in good condition, not matter how excited you are to have found that type.
I’m looking forward even more to the rest of my winter hikes in the woods now that I can keep an eye to the ground with a few more edibles in mind besides nettles and Miner’s Lettuce and one kind of Chanterelle. Rain Dance, anyone?