“Pass me a knife and I’ll cut it out,” Peter whispered, a fringed hippy bag dangling from his waist. His eyes were scrunched maniacally into narrow slits and fixed on a spot in the dirt in front of him, as if he’d lose sight of his prey.
Huffing and puffing from the steep climb through a brambly trail, effects from the morning’s intake of green tea and green bud long subsided, I reached into my basket and handed him my old, Spanish, carbon steel knife. With a few slow, deliberate passes of the blade, he liberated his masterpiece, wiping away the leaves and dirt with a small brush.
“Voila! A fine example of the Bothends mushroom… ‘cause if you eat it, it’ll be coming out of both ends,” chuckled Peter.
Thus began my mushroom foraging tutorial.
A mild, sunny January morning provided for an exemplary hike in the hills above Point Reyes. Unfortunately, the too-dry northern California winter has done little to encourage the fruiting of mushroom spores, which thrive in moist environments. Fungi typically grow in soil above ground, or live vampirically off their host food. Their queer appearance and quicksilver growth are only two of the many reasons mushrooms have always been warily regarded; the Devil’s fruit, with gills and fairy rings open doors into magic portals. And, indeed, many doors have been opened from mushrooms containing psychoactive properties. For thousands of years, in various cultures, the magic mushroom has been worshipped. Murals in the Sahara desert dating to 9,000 BC suggest psilocybin mushroom trips. Religious ceremonies in 4000 BC Spain celebrated its alchemy; the Mayans perfected the journey.
More recently, a study conducted at John Hopkins University confirmed previous assertions that mystical experiences brought on by mushrooms are equal to non-drug induced mystical experiences in both content and long-term effect. In a follow-up to the study, more than half of the participants rated their psychedelic trip among the most significant spiritual experiences of their lives, with a continued sense of well-being and life satisfaction. I can only imagine the one-third of the subjects who experienced extreme, short-lived anxiety after ingesting the hallucinogen are probably not people with whom I’d want to sup in any state.
But I’d break bread with our lead forager Patrick in a heartbeat; a tall and lanky geek with encyclopedic knowledge, a scruffy beard and dirty knit cap, he embodied the hippie vibe so often found with American mycophagists (those who forage for edibles). A self-described Mychochef, he’d pluck an ugly, slimy mushroom from the ground, rattle off both its scientific and common name, its edibility and quality rating, and then offer up a quick recipe, complete with cooking instructions and wine suggestion.
The undisputed meat of the vegetable world, fungi are foraged and given a place of honor at tables around the globe. They are a good source of B vitamins and essential minerals, and when not swimming in butter and white wine, are a mere 20 calories per ounce. Mushrooms boast a long list of medicinal uses and they’re even being transformed into eco-happy construction materials.
Dream house and hallucinations aside, it was the dark, earthy flavors of winter for which I now fantasized; standing in thick socks in front of the stove, wooden spoon in hand, I would relentlessly stir the risotto in a dinged copper pot while bathed in steamy aromas of shallot, pheasant stock, salted Norman butter, and several hearty splashes of oxidized California Chard. It would be finished with mountains of shaved Reggiano and handfuls of sliced chanterelles, their orange heads poking up through a blanket of glistening Arborio. Or perhaps tomorrow I’d make a late morning breakfast: eggs and cream whipped to a froth and just barely cooked, papered with thin slices of porcini mushrooms shaved on my ancient tin mandolin, and finished with florescent thyme leaves, flaky sea salt, and a drizzle of green Tuscan oil.
I get hot just thinking about it.
But none of that deliciousness was to come to pass. We found very few edibles of lesser quality, which made for more learning opportunity and less proper meal. I’m not yet knowledgeable enough to hunt mushrooms without a mentor, my ignorance in identifying various species threatening the lives of my dinner guests. Too many mushrooms are liver-meltingly poisonous and often resemble the edible species. There is no defining characteristic shared by all poisonous mushrooms – except their toxicity, which cannot be identified by merely eyeballing the fungi in question.
You have to know your shit.
My foraging quest ended a week later in front of a table at a farmer’s market, manned by three gruff Asian ladies, the oldest of whom most certainly knows her shit. On offer were both wild and Sonoma-farmed mushrooms splayed out in large boxes. I greedily picked the largest hunks of Miatakes, easily filling a paper bag. Also known as Hen-of-the-Woods or Sheep’s Head, their spherical shape is covered in whitish fronds that tickle the tongue. Cooked slowly in a cast iron skillet with young onion, butter, generous splashes of a yellowed Alsatian Pinot Gris, and a palmful of thyme and sage, the thick centers of the Miatakes brown while their ruffled fronds crisp. Topped with a poached egg at lunch or a shaving of Parmesan at supper, the mushroom’s tellurian flavors of forest floor, the essence of winter’s darkness, sustain.