Saturday, April 18, 2015

365 True Things: 21/Mushrooms

The other day while searching on Amazon for the term for a particular sort of knife (utility, as it turned out: yes, brain fart), I stumbled on a "mushroom knife." I was skeptical—a knife is a knife (unless it's a utility knife), and a SWAK has always served me just fine out in the woods . . . And then I saw the cute little boar's-hair brush at the end of the handle (for brushing dirt off mushroom caps). And the elegant curve of the blade. Okay, it's still gimmicky, but it wasn't very expensive. So, I ordered one as a birthday gift for David. It arrived today. The problem is, David's birthday isn't until September. I asked him if he wanted to wait or open it now.

So: it seems we—I mean, David—has a nice new mushroom knife! Too bad we haven't had any rain to bring out the fungi. Maybe next
year . . .

David and I started mushrooming back in, oh, it must have been 1984, '85. We were living in the East Bay, and—I don't even remember—probably started noticing mushrooms on walks in Tilden Park. We soon discovered the San Francisco Mycological Society and began attending their monthly meetings.

Mushroom groups tend to organize mushrooming forays, and we went on a few of those. We were hooked in no time.

Agaricus augustus
I remember one trip to an area just outside Yosemite. There had been a forest fire a couple of years before—and morels love burns. David and I arrived before the rest of the group, and we went for a hike out of the campground. On our way back, my nose detected a spectacularly musty-earthy aroma. "Stop," I said. "There are morels somewhere right around here." Sure enough, they were growing in the trail, evenly spaced down the middle. Thank goodness we hadn't stomped on them as we headed out.

Lepista nuda
The nose: I'm reliving right now the almond extract smell of "the prince," Agaricus augustus. (And okay, there goes my mouth watering.) And then there's the maple syrup fragrance of dried candy caps (Lactarius fragilis)—good in pancakes. And the orange juicy goodness of a fresh blewit (Lepista nuda). And this one I've never actually smelled, though I'd like to: matsutake (Tricholoma matsutake)—a cross between dirty socks and Red Hots, so I hear. Doesn't that sound scrumptious?

Mushrooms have taken me to some exotic places, most notably the Soviet Union: from Karelia, up near Finland, down to Tannu Tuva, down near Mongolia (the latter put on the map by physicist Richard Feynman and bluesman Paul Peña, via the documentary Genghis Blues). I traveled there, and also to New Mexico (which was equally wonderful for mushrooms, surprisingly), with the author of the quintessential Mushrooms Demystified, David Arora, and a few other die-hard fungophiles.

Cantharellus californicus
I recall, after the USSR trip, arriving—gratefully—in Helsinki, and there finding a restaurant called Kanttarelli, specializing in chanterelles. Every dish, even the desserts, featured this delectable little golden mushroom. You won't find anything like that in the fungophobic U.S.

In a large jar in our pantry, we still have some dried yellow morels (Morchella esculenta) that we found near Muscoda, Wisconsin (the state's "morel capital"), in 1988. We'd learned that the fungus associates with a certain deciduous tree (ash, maybe?), and soon we were running through the woods from ash to ash, and beneath each tree we'd find a cluster of beautiful big morels. It was the treasure hunt to beat all treasure hunts. The now almost thirty-year-old mushrooms, stored in glass, are still full of flavor, believe it or not (though we're almost to the end of them, alas).

When we moved to Monterey a year later, we were happy to find clusters of black morels (M. elata) in newly landscaped areas around the Cannery Row parking garages, the spores having hitchhiked in on the woodchips. 

Agaricus bitorquis
How do you tell the difference between a delicious mushroom like Agaricus bitorquis—related to the button mushroom you find at Safeway—and one like Amanita phalloides, a.k.a. the "death cap"? Or, how do you know what mushrooms are safe to eat when you travel to a new place? The best way is to find fellow fungophiles. When we moved to Monterey, we latched on to the Santa Cruz Fungus Federation, and went on outings with them. You learn so much that way. You also make good friends.

Amanita phalloides
These days, we don't get out mushrooming very often. If we do go, our objective is definitely to find edible shrooms: chanterelles, porcini, "the prince," oyster mushrooms (which favor dead oak), or a local specialty, Sparassis radicata, a.k.a. the cauliflower fungus.

Just writing about this makes me eager to go on a mushroom hunt. But as I said above, there are no shrooms this year to speak of. All the more reason to pray for rain here in California in the season ahead. Let the fungi live.

1 comment:

  1. This winter then. Wonderful traverse from Mongolia to wood chips long side new parking garages at home. Like how you jump girl.