Nature’s Wildest Gift
Why wild mushrooms are highly prized, super-expensive—and free.
Thursday, February 2, 2006
There are mushrooms, according to legend, that will show you the face of God. There are others that will kill you dead, painfully. But certain mushrooms, with a little butter and garlic, are simply and utterly delicious.
For those who can tell the differences between the psychedelic, the lethal and the gourmet varieties, wild mushrooms offer a unique culinary experience. Their texture can range from sensuously soft to perfectly chewy. Describing their flavor is like talking about fine wine—they are sweet and earthy, nutty and fruity, mild or intense, sublime. Mushrooms are the definition of what the Japanese call “umami,” a taste so specifically unctuous that many gourmets want to ascribe it its own category on the tongue. The mushroom—especially the wild mushroom—may be the most rare and exotic food-thing in the world.
Consider this: Kobe beef, cut from cows that are fed expensive beer and massaged by handlers for months, sells for around $50 a pound. The belly meat of the most exquisite yellowfin tuna, prized by sushi chefs worldwide, extremely rare, can cost $40 a pound. Wild chanterelle mushrooms, which pop out of the ground on their own accord, sell for $20 a pound. And that’s nothing. A pound of fresh Oregon truffles can sell for $200.
Most wild edible mushrooms cannot be bought for any price. Grocers don’t sell them. Restaurants buy them from serious wildcrafters who harvest them after the rains in secret spots.
They are some of the most valuable food commodities on earth. And yet, any of these pricey delicacies can be had for free. All it takes is a walk in the woods.
For amateurs who decide to—what the hell—take off through the fields and find tonight’s dinner, the first rule is simple: Don’t do it. (See “kill you dead,” above.) There are several terrific books that could, in theory, make such a foray survivable. But the differences between the delicious and the deadly can be slight…
Take the common puffball. All puffballs are good and edible, and when mature they have a unique appearance. They look exactly as their name implies: like puffy little golfball-sized balls—no stem, no umbrella-shaped cap, no gills, nothing. Only one problem: the amanita ocreata (common name “death angel”) looks, when it first appears from the earth, an awful lot like an innocent little puffball.
It is relatively easy for anyone who knows ‘shrooms to determine whether or not the firm, white thing you have found under the oaks will make an exotic addition to your last meal. It is best, therefore, for beginners to check with an expert.
Perhaps this is why mushroom lovers often can be found in groups. Mushroom hunting, which can become the most secretive of hobbies, generally begins as a team sport. And it is a sport that is growing in popularity nationwide. At last weekend’s EcoFarms conference at Asilomar, 30 farmers reverted to hunter-gathering on a mushroom walk, all dutifully taking notes as they wandered under the pines. Organizers had planned for half that number.
Two weeks ago, Chuck Bancroft, the beloved Point Lobos State Park ranger and wild mushroom guru, held a talk at the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History. It was the first big fungus fair on this end of the bay in some years. (Santa Cruz’s annual Fungus Fair, held every January, has been a seasonal fixture since it was founded in the 1970s by the legendary David Arora, author of the field guide All That the Rain Promises and More, and the tome Mushrooms Demystified.) The PG museum expected around 40 attendees—75 showed up.
Bancroft’s presentation included a stunning slide show featuring gorgeous images of dozens of types of mushrooms, illustrating variations in gills, spores, veils and so on, with usefully detailed information on the art and practice of wild mushroom hunting.
It also included some discussion about survival.
“Every mushroom is edible—once,” Baxter quipped darkly.
Attendee Chad Brown quoted the US Military Survival Handbook from memory:
“To test if a mushroom is edible, fast for eight hours, then put the mushroom in the pit of your elbow, and if a rash develops, don’t eat it.”
That’s handy information, if one is stranded alone in a remote locale with a snare-caught squirrel and a handful of wild onions, and one desires to add some subtle toothsomeness to his or her evening fare. For those of us in more civilized environs, it is easier to find some folks who know what they are doing.
In Monterey, those folks are members of the Fungus Federation of Santa Cruz (official slogan: “When It Rains, It Spores”). They can be contacted through their Minister of Propaganda (it is Santa Cruz, after all) at 684-2275. Events, including identification workshops and field forays, are listed at fungusfed.org.
Happily, it is not necessary for anyone in Monterey County to risk death (or even get their shoes wet) to enjoy nature’s wildest bounty. Many local chefs and restaurateurs have developed a taste for wild mushrooms, and they have developed the sources to get them onto their menus. Last week, Montrio featured a fish special including wild local chanterelles; I almost ordered it, just to get at the chanterelles, even though I was in the mood for the rotisserie chicken. Our waitress was able to make a substitution, and it became an extra-special meal.
John Pisto, owner of the Whaling Station and several other fine local restaurants, is an old friend of David Arora’s, and works wild mushrooms onto his menus this time of year. Many other local places offer ‘shrooms in a variety of settings. This is a good time of year to go out to eat.
Still, nothing beats a good home-cooked meal. And there is almost nothing that will make a home-cooked meal more enticing than the addition of some wild-gathered fungi.
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Some years ago, a friend—a bear expert and writer—walked into the newspaper office where I worked, and announced that he had some chanterelles out in his truck. He explained that he had gathered the mushrooms from spots only he and the grizzlies knew about. He generously invited us out to grab some.
I walked out to the street expecting to pick out a small handful from a bag in his passenger seat. I was pleasantly shocked to see that his pickup’s cargo bed was filled a foot deep. I walked away with a full grocery bag.
That night, I took them to a dinner party, where another
friend, a bird hunter, was preparing pheasant he had shot in
some barley fields outside the town where we lived. I dumped
the mushrooms out on a counter, cleaned them, sliced them,
sautéed them in some butter and garlic, and served them with
crackers as an appetizer. He roasted the pheasant and served
it, flambé, over a bed of barley and roasted roots—carrots,
parsnips and rutabaga. It was a memorable party. The
pheasant dish was really good, but everyone who was there
still talks about the chanterelles.