A resurgence in the timeless activity has gotten people outside and interested in mycology again.
Disclaimer: I am not a biologist, mycologist or even avid mushroom hunter. The information I am presenting purely comes from the expert I hunted with plus my own research. Here’s what you can expect from hunting with a professional.
“SHIT, I missed the turn,” I screamed inside my Jeep as we were driving down a winding road somewhere just south of the town of Jenner. It was a hazy morning on the Northern Coast of California and the sun was just starting to crest the clouds. The other intrepid adventurer was my friend Trapper who just spilled cold coffee on his lap as we barreled down a bumpy road trying to backtrack to Highway 1. Our destination was a parking lot across from an old gas station to meet up with our guide. The plan was to hunt for edible mushrooms. The original event had been rescheduled by the organization ForageSF last November because it hadn’t rained enough to encourage any decent mushroom fruiting.
It seems appropriate that after the recent launch of the documentary Fantastic Fungi coupled with an overwhelming interest in outdoor activities that can be done in isolation make for the recent boom in mycophiles. Not to mention the ravenousness for foraged foods that have been popularized by fine dining chefs all over the world from Alex Atala in Brazil to Magnus Nilsson in Sweden.
Foolishly, I didn’t check to see if the directions I was using were sending us to the proper location. Hastily, I whipped the car around and asked for directions from a Russian bakery seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Eventually, we hooked up with Patrick Hamilton — a 40+ year mycology expert, tour guide, and executive chef to the Sonoma County Mushroom Association and the San Francisco Mycology Society.
Once we covered the ground rules, completed the form to enter the Salt Point State Park, we took off in a caravan of cars even more North. Patrick had warned us that he was a fast driver; he was not wrong. We whipped past more beach towns, countless salt water taffy joints and burger stands. In and out of several coastal rainforests, we noticed tons of cars pulled onto the shoulders. Supposedly, amateur foragers already out for the day hunting in areas of questionable legality. Nevertheless, we geared up and gathered around with other couples intended to hunt for the elusive organisms.
Patrick began to give us the rundown for his program:
- You can safely taste any mushrooms so long as you do not swallow what you’re tasting. Supposedly, this is because your saliva only starts to digest carbohydrates and the toxins of poisonous mushrooms need to be completely ingested to attack the kidney and liver, sometimes taking days or weeks. Most poisonous species cause, in Patrick’s words, “gastric disturbances”.
- In Northern California, there are two deadly species, the Death Cap (Amanita phalloides) and the Destroying Angel (Amanita bisporigera). Both are extremely rare and have not been recently found in Salt Point State Park.
- When searching for mushrooms and bringing them back to Patrick to identify, you need to pull as much of the mushroom, stem, and volva from the ground as possible. Essentially, these act as context clues for him to identify the mushroom.
- The most commons species you’ll find during this time of year are Candy Cap (Lactarius rubidus), Hedgehog (Hydnum repandum), Yellowfoot Chantrelles (Craterellus tubaeformis) and Black Trumpets (Craterellus cornucopioides). Unfortunately, we had just missed King Boletes (Boletus edulis), also known as porcini, by a few days, something I have always wanted to find in the wild.
- Have fun. Patrick is merely a walking encyclopedia and check point, therefore; explore the woods and come back when time is called to share your haul. Each phase of the forest we explored had a slightly different ecosystem breeding different types of mushrooms due to the surrounding trees and other environmental variables.
For the next three hours, we hiked up and down a paved path in Salt Point State Park, stopping periodically to walk deep into the dimly lit woods to hunt for specimens closer to the source, the dead trees and creek bed. My friend and I swatted through thick vines and trudged through soft earth armed with our Opinel mushroom knives. Eventually, we made it to a creek bed from the top of the hill. Thank God for duck boots. Trapper suddenly spotted a large black specimen. It looked like a bouquet of black tea plates glued to a single base. We later found out this monstrous thing was a velvet-top fungus which is used to make dye for clothing.
We continued to another area of the park that housed more pine trees which are the preferred symbiotic partners for Yellowfoot Chantrelles (Craterellus tubaeformis). Trapper being six-foot-something, acted as the spotter for more pine trees. Then, I would quickly scan for any signs of mushrooms being closer to the ground and all. A word to the wise, make sure you stretch your neck and back periodically to avoid unwanted stiffness.
We stopped for a second time to observe the mushrooms the group brought back for identification. We all stood around as if we were presenting our labored dishes à la NOMA on Saturday nights. NOMA, a mainstay of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, breaks after service on Saturday nights to allow chefs to present their culinary creations in open quorum to Redzepi and his senior team. Redzepi, also being a formidable forager himself, served as my inspiration to learn about foraging. I digress.
Finally, after Patrick took a once over our last loot to confirm if anything was edible, we parted ways a little wiser, covered in dirt and spores. At the end of the day, I only managed to find a few small Candy Cap mushrooms. I guess that is why they call it ‘hunting’ and not ‘finding’. Luckily, Patrick’s assistant overheard my enthusiasm for recreating Far West Fungi’s Candy Cap Caramels and generously gave me her bag of Candy Caps.
Overall, a phenomenal experience that has ignited a new passion for gathering edible foods and turning them into culinary magic. Happy hunting!
Here are some resources to kick-start your mushroom mania:
All That the Rain Promises and More by David Arora — The seminal pocket guide to Western mushroom species; the second of Arora’s books after Mushrooms Demystified
California Mushrooms: The Comprehensive Identification by Denis E. Des Jardins — A more dense guide for identification complete with edible and inedible species alike, feels like it could be a college textbook
Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World by Paul Stamets — Stamets is a rockstar mycologist, star of the documentary Fantastic Fungi and owner of Fungi Perfecti — a company that sells everything from mushroom kits to supplements using mushrooms
The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America by Langdon Cook — In the spirit of Stalking the Wild Asparagus — follow the journey of a hardcore foodie tailing some of America’s venerable mushroom experts looking for one of the last wild foods
How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence by Michael Pollan — Join him as he explores the importance of several psychedelics, including mushrooms, and their therapeutic capabilities
Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms by Paul Stamets — Another book from the proverbial Buddha of mycology. This book focuses on cultivating mushrooms in your home for culinary and medicinal purposes
Shroom: Mind-Bendingly Good Recipes for Cultivated and Wild Mushrooms by Becky Selengut — Although this book is an investment and rarely in circulation, it is one of the more comprehensive and beautifully shot cookbooks focusing on the cleaning, preparation, cooking and storage of mushrooms I’ve seen.