It is early November, and rainfall along the lush, foggy Mendocino County coast prompts curious foragers to scramble for the bounty of porcinis, golden chanterelles, candy caps, matsutakes, black trumpets and hedgehogs bursting through the dewy soil.
Mushrooms of various shapes and colors seem to be rising everywhere on the forest floor in Gualala, which is 115 miles north of San Francisco. And unusually this year, many are arriving at the same time.
Twigs crackling underfoot, a small group moves slowly through the pine trees, eyes scanning the ground.
“See, I would’ve eaten that,” David Arora murmurs as he and a friend, photographer Paul Kozal, pick through porcini parts left by “novices” in a small glade. “The stems,” Arora notes, “are way sweeter than the caps.”
‘THEY LIKE THE EDGES’
Arora, an intensely focused man with a wiry build, is a legend in the mycology community. Having penned two well-known field guides, one of which he is currently updating, mushrooms have been his singular fascination since his early teens.
Now in his 60s, Arora keeps a shy, almost reclusive manner for someone so well known in the field. Averting his eyes, he returns a handshake so softly as to barely register. But once the mushroom talk gets going during this impromptu jaunt into the woods, Arora opens up.
His wry sense of humor and wealth of knowledge are dispensed in concise, direct and amusing observations.
While the others pause briefly to gather their bearings, Arora, with an umbrella-turned-walking-stick in his hand, disappears into the trees. A minute later, he calls out that he found more porcinis.
“They like the edges,” Arora says upon return.
It is simple and practical advice — apparently he was referring to the sides of trails — that easily could be mistaken for the lofty wisdom of a Zen master. However, he adds a dose of humility.
“You’ll find ’em, but sometimes it’s not easy to find ’em again,” Arora says.
Part of the pleasure of entering this world lies in the colorful lexicon of popular mushroom names — chicken of the woods, cowboy’s handkerchief, dead man’s foot, ma’am on motorcycle, plums and custard, and witch’s hat are just a few. Arora snatches up one along the trail nicknamed the “Clorox mushroom.”
“They smell like bleach,” he says. Sure enough, they do.
NATURE’S BOX OF CURIOSITIES
Mushrooms are a curious breed. So alien that biologists have classified them in a kingdom all their own — not a plant, not an animal. Despite having become a commodity like so many other things that grow — the U.S. mushroom industry is estimated at more than $1 billion annually — they maintain an aura of secrecy and magic.
What we call mushrooms are actually the fruit of a massive, threadlike system of underground life. Every year, and sometimes multiple times a year, when the rains come, within a day or two, they make an appearance.
Mushroomers can be a curious breed themselves. But these foragers, far from mystics on a psychedelic journey for mind-altering shrooms, are level-headed about their enchantment with fungi. Dazzling red-and-white amanita muscaria — reputed to be both toxic and visionary, with a history of use by Siberian shamans — are everywhere in the Mendocino County woods, but Arora is more interested in describing how to boil away the toxins to safely eat the flesh.
On that November day, many of the amber-hued porcinis — also called boletes and prized for their rich flavor — had risen so quickly that they still had carpets of pine needles resting on their caps. Smaller and lighter-colored spy mushrooms often grow near porcinis here, so Arora uses them as a guide. But there is no simple formula for locating mushrooms.
Kozal, the photographer friend who says he has luck frequenting this part of the forest, describes foragers as typically friendly with each other but not eager to share much info, often returning stealthily year after year to the same fertile nooks.
“Everybody keeps their mushroom spots secret,” Kozal says.
Though at times competitive, mushrooming feels more like a brotherhood. Arora, laughing, recounts a recent experience walking along state Highway 1 and smelling the earthy scent of mushrooms as cars zipped alongside and perspiring bicyclers navigated past him. There was no punch line. He seemed to be saying, with the amusement of a man distant in spirit if not body from the civilized world, that treasure was right there at “the edges” for anyone willing to stop and look.
Later that day, at an elaborate mushroom-themed Italian dinner at the MacCallum House in the quaint coastal town of Mendocino — one of several events that week honoring the county’s annual mushroom festival — another longtime aficionado who has become a public face of the local mushroom industry greets high-paying attendees who came from as far away as San Francisco.
“Mushrooms run my life,” Eric Schramm, a gregarious former forest ranger, says proudly, embarking on a brief history of humanity’s relationship with fungi and its uses both as food and medicine.
“We’ve been married to mushrooms since we crawled out of the caves,” he tells diners as they consume local wines and steamed clams and trumpet royale mushrooms, morels and bruschetta, chanterelles and gnocchi, and rabbit and porcini cacciatore. Mushrooms have clearly come a long way since the caves.
In the morning, an antique train chugs out from Fort Bragg under a cloud of dark smoke for another signature festival event. The Skunk Train, one of Mendocino County’s biggest tourist attractions, is transformed for the day into the “Mushroom, Wine and Beer Train.” It takes hundreds of merry revelers of all ages and stripes into the forest for an afternoon of guided foraging and inventive dishes such as an incredible mushroom-flavored cappuccino drink created by local chef Marc Dym.
With plenty of beer and wine (and possibly other substances) flowing freely, the atmosphere takes on an increasingly intoxicating flavor that lasts through the trip back to town.
FOR LOVE OF THE MUSHROOM
The festival may do well at promoting local commerce, but your typical forager is not so interested in the business of mushrooms. For most, they are a delicious food source that can be harvested for free by anyone willing to duck into the trees, even in their backyards, and with knowledge often handed down through the generations of what is good to eat and what is not.
Mendocino photographer Randy Lutge says his father brought him into the fold.
“He showed me all of these areas and taught me how to pick without getting sick,” Lutge says on a walk into the forest just off a roadway. Except, he adds, that one time when he mistook a poisonous woolly gomphus for an edible chanterelle and “learned a good lesson.”
For Lutge, who with his wife was able to relocate their tech-oriented careers from the Bay Area, hunting for and cooking up mushrooms “has become a real avocation.”
“When the mushrooms start going, it’s a way for me to get away from the computer, and get out where it’s quiet,” Lutge says. “The only thing I have to worry about are the mountain lions.”
A LIFE’S WORK
Back at his gallery in Gualala, Kozal explains that his interest in mushrooms goes beyond foraging. Motivated by beauty, he captures them in metal prints — photographing them on a flatbed scanner, then fusing the images onto aluminum panels — imparting a nearly three-dimensional depth and a glow that conveys a sense of the other-worldliness often associated with mushrooms.
Having befriended Arora years ago after the mycologist came into the gallery, introduced himself warily as Larry, and purchased a piece, Kozal joined a local community of mushroom devotees that he says now includes biologists, foodies, attorneys, doctors and software programmers who all take to the woods on the yearly, seasonal hunt. And for Kozal, his art serves a delectable dual purpose.
“People ask me, ‘What did you do with that porcini after you scanned it?’” he says. “It ended up in the risotto.”
Ari Burack is a freelance writer who also blogs at http://openskylight.blogspot.com.
When to go
Mendocino mushroom season
Mendocino County has about 3,000 varieties of mushrooms, 500 of them edible, that grow in a season that typically runs from November to May. The main factor is rain, and along the coast the cool and damp climate is a perfect environment for them to grow. According to photographer and mushroom forager Paul Kozal, the porcinis are usually first to arrive, seen after the first 2 to 4 inches of rain. This season, the rains brought out porcinis as early as September and through December, Kozal says. Throughout the winter, varieties such as candy cap, black trumpet, yellowfoot chanterelle and hedgehog emerge. But Kozal reports that several varieties could even be found in November. And you need not go far to find them, as many can be found close to main roads. Just make sure you know what you are picking, or are with someone who does. Some poisonous mushrooms can be mistaken for edibles and can even be fatal if consumed.
If you go
Mendocino mushroom hunting
Mendocino County Mushroom, Wine and Beer Festival: One of the county’s most popular festivals, held over 10 days each November, includes mushroom-themed dinners, outings and exhibits. www.visitmendocino.com
Studio 391: Paul and Carol Kozal exhibit works by new and established artists, in addition to Kozal’s photography. 39102 Ocean Drive, Gualala. www.studio391.net Kozal’s mushroom images can be found online at www.searanchphotography.com
MacCallum House Inn and Restaurant: A boutique hotel located in downtown Mendocino that dates back to 1882 and features upscale accommodations in classic Victorian style. The restaurant, run by chef Alan Kantor, hosts an elaborate annual mushroom festival dinner. 45020 Albion St., Mendocino. www.maccallumhouse.com
The Stanford Inn: An eco-resort focused on health and sustainability, featuring bicycling and river canoe trips, and a vegan restaurant that offers a medicinal mushroom breakfast for the festival. 44850 Comptche Ukiah Road, Mendocino. www.stanfordinn.com
Little River Inn: The inn’s restaurant and bar overlooking the Pacific is a favorite of travelers and, more importantly, locals. Fabulous food by chef Marc Dym, also an annual participant in mushroom festival celebrations. 7901 California Highway 1, Little River. www.littleriverinn.com