Nearly a year and a half ago now, I moved with my wife and our two boys into her childhood home near Salt Point State Park on the coast in northern Sonoma County. At the time, I had no idea that I was about to discover a new, productive, exciting and adventurous hobby: mushroom hunting. What the natives, the Russians at Fort Ross and locals have known here for generations is that this is one of the world's greatest mushroom-hunting areas. Largely specific to coastal California counties, the temperate climate—buffered by the heat sink of the Pacific Ocean—coastal fog, rain and forest duff and decay make for what could possibly be the perfect mushroom-rearing environment.
One of the most amazing things to me about hunting for mushrooms, apart from the unending delicious meals direct from our backyard, is that the activity simply couldn't exist without people, storytelling and human interaction. It truly is one of the last great oral traditions in our society—heck, in the world. Mushrooming is also timed to perfectly coincide with the departure of the beloved summer veggies, bringing another bounty to the table altogether.
Of course, mushroom hunting is not for the faint of heart. There is a tremendous risk: death. Were it not for folks willing to teach us the tradition and how to distinguish the yummy from the deadly, we might just see mushroom hunting disappear. For example, the distinction between one of the most delicious common mushrooms, the coccora, and the death cap is so slight and so very critical that it's nearly impossible to make by book alone.
You're thinking you might want to take the plunge and do some foraging? Great! First things first: never eat a wild mushroom. (Our lawyers made us say that.)
Still got the bug? Super! Here's what to do:
Get a book. While mushroom-hunting guidebooks can never examine specimens for you and verify that they're safe to consume, they are a fantastic start and a priceless companion in the field. I've found that most of the varieties of mushroom found in the North Bay are described in witty text and color prints in David Arora's All That the Rain Promises and More: A Hip Pocket Guide to Western Mushrooms (Ten Speed Press; $17.99). Many mushroom diehards consider this and Arora's Mushrooms Demystified (Ten Speed Press; $39.99) to be the casual mycologist's bibles. Both books and a trove of additional info can be found via www.davidarora.com.
Head down to the local bookshop and you're likely to find many more books with illustrations, but Arora's place in local mushroom hunting culture is solid. I had the pleasure of attending the standing-room-only November meeting of the Sonoma County Mycological Association, where Arora was the guest speaker, a meeting that filled the Sonoma County Farm Bureau building with more than 140 enthusiastic listeners. Recently, Arora purchased a home just outside Gualala in southern Mendocino County, and now the bounty of coastal mushrooms he's studied for decades is just outside his front door.
Find an expert. Check out a local mycological association. You might be surprised how many people just like you are interested in learning more. The crux is that you shouldn't ever trust yourself to identify a mushroom to eat until you know the mushroom by heart. Find someone who knows, who has foraged extensively, who has learned from other mushroom fanatics and who has lived to teach you the way. I can't stress this enough.
Finding an amazing mushroom can be euphoric, like finding a $100 bill in an old pair of jeans, except the forest floor is covered with old pairs of jeans. However, if eating a mushroom sends you to the hospital with liver failure because you didn't get the identification right, don't call me. Remember, this is an oral tradition; it doesn't work without other people. Find someone you trust, someone skeptical of mushrooms and averse to risk, and have them teach you.
In Sonoma County, there is a fantastic resource in the Sonoma County Mycological Association, open to everyone and packed to the gills with friendly folks who'll be happy to teach you everything they know. Their email group is very active and participatory, and is an excellent local archive for mushroomers. The association has open meetings every month in Santa Rosa, regular outings, friendly and fun members, passionate guest speakers, and they encourage beginners to bring mushrooms to meetings for identification. Visit www.somamushrooms.org or the Mycological Society of San Francisco at www.mssf.org.
Get out of the house and do it! Mycologists and experienced hunters call it a "foray." Of course, you can go on a foray by yourself, but once you think you know your stuff, I'd encourage getting hooked up with one of the organized forays various mycological associations have throughout the year. In Sonoma County, there's only one park which is open to recreational mushroom harvesting with no permit necessary: Salt Point State Park, about a 30-minute drive north of Jenner on Highway 1. There's a five-pound daily limit in Salt Point, but there are no restrictions on the types of mushrooms, and believe me, there are some heavenly mushrooms in Salt Point.
In Marin, Mount Tamalpais State Park, Samuel P. Taylor State Park, Tomales Bay State Park and Point Reyes National Seashore are also open to casual mushroom hunting. And lastly, be sure to bring a map. At minimum, be certain you're on state park property when you take a mushroom or hike a trail. Lots of folks get lost in the park or, worse still, take mushrooms from private property. Make sure you know where you are, and where it is OK to take a mushroom.
Verify your treasure. Trust your scientific identification skills? Are you sure? Let's be honest, it's always better to have someone scrutinize your finds with you. I recall being on a foray with my neighbor Fritz, a veteran of mushrooming and someone who has lived among the coastal bounty for the better part of 40 years. I was certain I had found a delicious coccora, and was just about to toss it into my basket when Fritz said, "Wait!" I looked his way, just a few steps from where I had found the golden nugget. At Fritz's foot was what I came to learn was a death cap—growing right next to my coccora.
Of course, this might not mean much to the beginner, and certainly didn't to me, until Fritz hypothesized, "What if the mycelium underground beneath the death cap had commingled with the coccora's mycelium?" He was right. It wasn't a risk worth taking. I happily thanked Fritz. Verify your treasure, and hunt with an expert.
Cooking and preparation. I've personally only been at this great little mushroom hunting hobby for a bit more than a year now, but in this short time, I've learned that there are nearly as many recipes and preparation styles as there are mushrooms themselves. Once the hardest part of hunting and verification is done, it's time to really get cooking and enjoy the meal. I've found that the best preparations are going to come from the mouths of folks you pick to be your mentors. Who better to tell you what tastes best and how? While some of the tastiest recipes I've tried use nothing more than mushrooms, heat and butter, you'll find that the various mycological associations also have robust recipe sections, as well as active email groups. They are wonderful resources full of great folks willing to teach you anything they know. Lean on them, and foray!