Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Mushroom Hunting: What a Trip!

So, it's been rainy round these parts. No complaints - the rain is a welcome sight, and hey, let's face it, Napa Valley is no Minneapolis. Things could definitely be worse.

I bring up the rain because here in Northern California, rain means one thing and one thing only to a select group of diligent, fungus-obsessed souls: mushrooms! A good friend of ours, John, is one such fervent mycologist, and lucky for me, he often invites Randall along for his foraging adventures. Such was the case last week. The duo was out the door at the crack of dawn to an undisclosed location somewhere along the Sonoma coast to a site where John has been successfully gathering mushrooms for decades. I think he made Ran wear a blindfold to the secret spot. I'm not exactly kidding. (Mushroom hunters are VERY territorial - I am jeopardizing my relationship with John by the mere fact that I mention the coast - to him, "Northern California" is entirely too precise when describing his hunting grounds.)

Now, I wasn't there (I just got to reap the rewards!) - but apparently the day involved miles of hiking, soaking wet clothing and mud up to there. And the mushrooms don't just jump out and scream "Hey there! Here I am!" - no no. They lie in wait under the duff and dirt of the forest floor, beneath the protective canopies of certain species of trees. Finding them takes skill and practice. I believe it was Michael Pollan in one of his books that described the ability to see mushrooms in the wild as a learned knack he called "getting your mushroom eyes on" - or something to that effect. The clever fungi use all of nature's camouflage tricks to stay as hidden as possible, when in fact, they are just about everywhere underfoot. (Bit of trivia: the single largest living organism on the planet is, in fact, a mushroom.) And then there's the whole component of actually knowing - really, truly knowing - which mushrooms are safe to consume, as opposed to which ones are toxic. It's a fine line - but one you don't want to find out the hard way. One mistake will cost you your life - or at the very least, a vital organ or two. John, thankfully, is one of those people that really, truly does know the difference. I've personally trusted my own life to his mushroom identification skills many a time - and I'm still here.

Now - the types of mushrooms that the boys were hunting that day were varied: black trumpet, hedgehog (above), other varieties that I'd never heard of (like that big yellow one pictured below)... but mainly, the prized matsutake. (Chantrelles and morels - my absolute favorites - will be a different trip.) If you ever want to know what money smells like, just take a big whiff of a matsutake. The matsutake are highly prized in Japan where they can go for almost $1,000 per pound. Here, they don't command quite a sum, but you can still expect to pay anywhere from $25-$50 per pound if you can find them fresh (usually at a farmer's market).

Here's a bit of good info, excerpted from The New York Times:

"The name matsutake means 'pine mushroom' in Japan, where the local species grows in association with Japanese red pines. About 15 other closely related species occur worldwide, including the American matsutake, which flourishes in coniferous forests across North America (and particularly in the Northwest and Northern California) [in association] with fir, spruce and pine, as well as tanoaks.

"Japanese pay a premium for young, unopened matsutakes, before the veil between the cap and the stem breaks, which stay fresh better than more mature ones. (Matsutakes at this stage have a phallic appearance, and women at the imperial court at Kyoto once were forbidden to speak the mushroom's name.) However, there's no difference in flavor.

"The price and availability vary considerably, depending on the domestic and international harvests and demand from Japan."

Bless them, the boys brought back two bushels full of the gems. And that was after a really sweet bargaining trade on their way home. They stopped in Bodega Bay and greeted the Dungeness crab fisherman pulling up to the docks. A few rare and prized mushrooms go a long way toward negotiating a killer deal on the freshest crab imaginable.

So guess what my dinner was that night? You got it - heaps and heaps of sauteed mushrooms with fresh cracked crab. (I kept the mushrooms really simple to let their natural flavor shine through. I sauteed them in a combination of olive oil and butter - small amounts of both, just enough to coat the pan - and drained the juice as the mushrooms released their water. Salted them lightly. In the end, they were caramelized, tender and almost steak-like). Heaven!

So boys - when the next hunting trip?

Ran's pictures from the harbor in Bodega Bay...

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