March 1, 2022

There’s Food in Those Mountains


ome mushrooms appear only in years with late soaking rain, others only when there has been an early rain followed by a dry spell followed by another rain. Some mushrooms only grow where there is something dead under the dirt, while others cannibalize nearby poisonous mushrooms, transforming them into prized edibles. There are those who believe fungi are an alien kingdom, delivered from space on an errant asteroid.

It is a strange and unpredictable world, that of the mushroom hunter.

Mushroom melée

And so it is that we often depart dry Los Angeles in the fall or winter, fortified with nothing but hope, fora holiday visit to see my mother and other family in the damp mountainous forests of Northern California’s Sonoma County, uncertain what we will find growing amidst those trees. Some dry years, we might drive up at Thanksgiving and find nothing, while other years we may discover porcini and chanterelles, among others.

Later in the season, around Christmas, we will sometimes find tiny, delicious candy caps growing from the moss. Also sometimes abundant at this time — and other times absent altogether —is one of my favorite mushrooms, the matsutake. The Japanese will often pay a premium for this beautiful white mushroom that smells of wood and spice. In the Northwest, people have died over conflicting claims of ownership to a prize matsutake grounds.

This year, my sister in Santa Rosa has been sending me photos of mushrooms and asking me if they are edible. Most are difficult to identify from a picture, although in one shot a large and clearly recognizable shroom rose from the grass. “That’s a porcini!” I said. Another two photos featured mushrooms I also recognized — the death cap and the destroying angel. As the names imply, these are not fungi you want to put in your mouth. “You’ve managed to find two of the Top 10 most deadly mushrooms in America!” I told her. And… cautioned her against making a pasta with them.

For those interested intaking up mushroom hunting, I would share the oft-repeated saying: “There are old mushroom hunters, and there are bold mushrooms hunters. But there are no old, bold mushroom hunters.”

Get a couple field guides, get out in the woods, and have fun. But don’t eat anything unless you’ve cleared it with an expert.

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