Before my move to Hiouchi I thought people who tramped around in the rain looking for fungi were, to say the least, wacky, a little off. When my friends Robert and Stacey used to invite me on mushroom hunts in the Berkeley hills — usually when a light rain was falling — I would devise the wildest excuses. I was ignorant, but mostly I was scared. I’m not sure why, but after reading mushroom guru David Arora’s lightweight field guide All That the Rain Promises and More I realize I was in fact a fungophobe. I secretly wanted to know about and eat these wild and crazy fungi but didn’t want to overtly put in the effort. Maybe you can relate.
My life in the redwoods now has me singing a different tune. In a region that tallies nearly a hundred inches of rain a year, this is a certifiable rain forest and therefore a mushroom forager’s nirvana. At bnb Hiouchi you are in the middle of the action, in a veritable fishbowl of edible mushrooms (as well as the not-so-edible, so be aware).
In my four winters here I’ve encountered, cooked, and eaten matsutake, lobster mushroom, hedgehog, chanterelle, yellow foot, shrimp mushroom, angel wings, honey mushroom, and king bolete. Knowing a few factoids about mushrooms, and with a few tips on where to find them, you can often come away from a winter’s hike with plenty of edibles to fry up with eggs, dry sauté and put on pizza, or air dry for later use in soups and stews.
Where to start.
How about the hedgehog. Prolific. Good tasting. Easy to identify. It’s hard to go wrong foraging for hedgehogs. And, you can find them in abundance on a number of local trails (and often in the immediate vicinity of the bnb). Hedgehogs were one of the first mushrooms I was taught to identify, probably because it is one of the easiest to safely i-d. Note the spikes on the cap’s underside. It’s the only mushroom around that has these spikes (as opposed to gills, or a spongy and porous underbelly, and it has no poisonous look-alikes). The color palette of the hedgehog is a sandy, buff color (some call it a pale or dull orange). This mushroom is usually on the small size — about the size of a thumb — but can also get as big as a fist.
Yellow foot is another common mushroom. Will gills similar to the chanterelle, you can almost tell yourself they are chanterelles, but believe me, if you time your foraging right you won’t need to exaggerate. The primary differences between these edibles and the more sought-after chanterelle is the cap-to-stem traverse of gills and the floppy, paper-like consistency of the cap and flesh. On the chanterelle, the gills travel all the way down the stem; on the yellow foot, the gills occupy the underside of the cap but not the stem. Gills on both are similarly random and frayed looking. Additionally, chanterelles are more solid, more dense. Also, the chanterelle stalk is overtly fluted, rising up from the ground in a funnel shape while the yellow foot stem and cap are more obviously differentiated.
The shrimp mushroom. This is a tasty but tricky mushroom to identify as it looks similar to other, less tasty, rose-colored Russulas (some which are too peppery to eat or those which can cause nausea and stomach pain). It takes a strong will and the unambiguous smell of shrimp to convince the forager to munch on this find. Call me crazy but when Meg and I came upon our first batch of shrimp mushrooms when we were renting in Gasquet, we dove right in, cooking these up in butter and wine and then adding them to a pasta sauce and having a dinner that made us giddy with delight. Our first experience with finding, identifying, picking, cooking and eating mushrooms in the wild! These are exquisite tasting mushrooms but do your research — a small taste of raw mushroom will not be peppery and the smell when raw should be distinctively reminiscent of shrimp or shellfish. In all cases of foraging for food, ask a more experienced forager if you have any doubt about a mushroom’s pedigree. Look for shrimp mushroom among conifer trees such as Douglas fir.
The true chanterelle (and not the similar-looking, abundant, yet inedible scaly chanterelle) will be instantly obvious to the casual forager. I’ve found these near the bnb as well as on nearby trails. This is my second favorite mushroom to eat. I suggest a dry sauté for the chanterelle to extract moisture and water and then it’s anything goes – on pizza, in soup, sautéed with pork or chicken. Incredibly meaty, these mushrooms are truly to die for. Haven’t yet stumbled upon any? Give it time and when you least expect it, viola, you will have a handful. And all you did was take a walk in the wintry forest!
Matsutake. A white, fragrant, sought-after mushroom that cooks up meaty and tasty. But they are more elusive and harder to identify than the hedgehog or chanterelle. As buddy Josh advises, get a positive i-d on suspected matsutakes as there are tons of white mushrooms out there which do well at impersonating this exquisite species. After eating matsutake in soup or on pizza (my favorite use) you will be predisposed to looking for and “finding” more to consume. Proceed with caution. Give your find a good whif and seek out the distinctive aroma of “spicy cinnamon and musty socks,” as mushroom blogger Alex Payson puts it. Also, be on the lookout for a tiny veil or ring that is present on the stem just below the cap. To celebrate my first “fresh foraged” matsutake mushroom (given to me by mushroom expert and field guide author Bob Sommer who recently stayed at the bnb with his wife and shared a morning foray on a trail off Howland Hill Road). I made a pizza with the prized fungi on top. When the table of six people took their first bites, a blissful and collective silence fell over us. We were in foodie heaven. (The movie above shows Josh dry sautéing these prize shrooms before making the pizza.) If you want a little poetic justice, a friend who recently had a huge big bolete find (40 pounds!) often passes up matsutakes because his sense of smell is shot and he can’t confirm his finds. Hah! More for us I say.
Before more talk of species, let’s talk about timing. The best time to forage is after but not during the rains. I’ve been on hikes under storm conditions and it can be exhilarating but disappointing as the mushrooms are usually soggy and already half-eaten by maggots or other tiny critters. But like people say – stick around and the weather will probably change.
Oyster mushrooms. I was walking my old Anton on his morning hike to Bill’s and stumbled on a log littered with these beauties. Along a 15-foot run of the downed tree, Meg and I picked over a gallon of these light-hearted and delicate fungi that over the course of about four days ended up in omelets, sautéed with chicken, and on salads. I’ve yet to find others but I am always on the lookout. Oysters are hard to miss — they grow in upward-reaching clumps, usually on downed and dead logs, and look like the ubiquitous oyster mushroom you often see in stores. Only the ones you find in the forest are fresher, tastier, and free.
Honey mushrooms. Last year I spotted a clump of honeys growing on the bnb’s steps leading down to the river, shortly after the first storm of the season. Meg was sure of their identity but we didn’t have the guts to ignore the literature which cautions the neophyte forager not to eat honeys with abandon as they can cause some digestive issues with some people. As many a recipe suggests, I par-boiled the shrooms before eating but at the last minute succumbed to the cautionary tales; after munching on three, fresh from the hot water, I decide to toss the rest to be sure I wasn’t one of those affected by honeys. Anecdote: after uploading a photo of the honeys to my facebook page, a commenter suggested they not be eaten. I think I did the right thing by tossing the rest that first day but now am on the lookout for more, this time to eat.
Lobster mushroom. This is one of the strangest mycological finds you will ever encounter — a true freak of nature. Lobster mushrooms are created when one fungi physically overtakes and subsumes a host mushroom. The two fungi then grow as one (a simplification, I admit) with the dominant mushroom, Hypomyces lactifluorum, usually toppling a Russula or Lacterius species. Lobsters can grow to be the size of a small fist, the coloration resembling a cooked lobster, hence the name. These are unusual finds in the western states yet do exist. Bob Sommer encountered and picked one over his stay at bnb-hiouchi in November. We sliced it thick and sautéed the pieces in butter and garlic. It was a unique taste that defied categorization. All I can say is, when you find them, cook them up in some butter, with some thin-sliced purple onion in the pan and eat them!
And lastly, the king bolete. Straight out of the mind of Colombian painter Fernando Botero is the king bolete. Prized by many as the premier find among edibles, I can attest to their meaty consistency and rich, woody flavor — and the utter joy at finding them in the field. Hard to mistake them, this fungi can be dry sautéed and added to the same sort of dishes you would add chanterelles to. Look for the full, round cap, spongy undercap, and XXL-sized stem. A sure sign of boletes? Where aminata muscaria grow (a highly poisonous variety of mushroom), so grows the bolete. Look for these mushrooms in sandy soil that drains well. See pine trees? Now, look down for boletes. Then cross reference with a Botero image. Similar, no?