By Leonie Sherman

The author holding a prize porcini

There’s more than one reason to love the winter rains that turn the East Bay hills luscious and green every year. They bring a refreshing scent, transform a season’s worth of brittle grasses to soft meadows, and fill tiny creeks to tumbling streams. The drippy weather also encourages many of us to spend time indoors bonding with loved ones over steaming cups of tea and bad movies.

But for a hardy group of devoted and occasionally obsessed individuals who call the East Bay home, the first rain of winter is like Paul Revere riding through the woods hollering, “The mushrooms are coming!”

I will admit that before this past season opened with the first hard rain of November I was not among the obsessed. A couple of my friends are devotees of what appears to be the East Bay mushroom cult, and in years past as they tromped through the woods, I followed along paying little mind to the strange organisms they pulled out of the earth to deposit in their backpacks. But this autumn, I embraced mushroom mania, or maybe the mushrooms decided that finally I was ready. Now when it rains, I dig out my Gore-Tex gear, lace up my hiking boots, grab a basket, strap on a knife, and prepare to hunt for the prey that cannot run but sure can hide.

There are dozens of varieties of mushrooms that thrive in the East Bay forests, but the easiest to identify, and some would argue the tastiest of our local fungi, are the cantharellus cibarius, or chanterelle. Chanterelles favor oaks and bay laurel trees. They hide among the leaf litter, with bright orange tips beckoning to the passerby who knows what to look for. Once the dead leaves are brushed away, the chanterelle is revealed in all its glory—ruffled and squash-colored with deep furrows running almost the entire length of the mushroom. Nothing quite matches the joy of crawling through the woods all day to find wild mushrooms, then taking them home to add to the evening’s feast.

Some attribute a tangy nut-like flavor to the chanterelle, others say it has only a mild taste which makes it accommodate a savory sauce. Some chanterelle fans insist it’s all about the consistency. “They have this great texture, really meaty,” says Geronimo “Jefe” Bernard, who has been hunting chanterelles in the hills 12-miles east of Berkeley for 25 years. One thing is clear—chanterelles add flair to any dish, from pasta to soup to quiche.

 

For those whose idea of a good time does not involve soggy socks, battling poison oak, and crawling through wet brambles, don’t despair! During chanterelle season you can find them at many local markets. They might be nestled in amongst the zucchini, sugar snap peas and other winter greens, but this is no ordinary vegetable. In fact, it’s not even a plant.

Those chanterelles are actually the tips of a vast underground web of microscopic fungal strands called mycelium. Mycelium occur in symbiosis with trees; the trees supply sugars the mycelium needs to grow and in exchange the mycelium makes certain crucial minerals available to the tree. Without their mycelium, many trees will never reach adulthood, and without their trees, mycelium will never make mushrooms.

The mushrooms you see are actually the fruiting bodies or reproductive organs of that vast system of mycelium, which stretches underneath the forest floor, sometimes for miles. After it reaches maturity, a chanterelle will drop millions of spores from the ridges or gills underneath the cap. Those spores will be carried far and wide by wind or animals, or even hapless mushroom hunters. Some spores will take root, produce more mycelium, and eventually, another crop of chanterelles.

Despite much effort and study, biologists have found that chanterelles and their relatives, a group of mushrooms called ecto-mycohryzal, cannot be cultivated or reproduced. Although loyal foragers return to the same patches year after year, nobody can claim to know if last year’s bountiful spot will produce again this year. Biologists remain baffled as to why they can’t mimic this relatively straightforward pattern and make more mushrooms. UC Berkeley Professor Thomas Bruns, who teaches a popular mushroom identification class every other year, says you can take a truckload of spores and pour them on an area that was flush with chanterelles the previous year with no results. Commercial foragers out to make a buck have even isolated spots where they found abundant chanterelles in the wild and tried to manage the areas for mushrooms, but no dice: the mushrooms follow their own puzzling patterns.

Their mystery is part of their appeal. In our modern shrink-wrapped world, I’m somehow reassured by the fact that we don’t understand everything out there; it’s wonderful to find and then take home and eat something that wasn’t made or even mediated by humans.

If the damp, cold, and poison oak are not a deterrent, there are a few other hurdles to overcome before you step out into the forest in search of chanterelles; namely where, how, and what. There are no public lands where it is legal to forage for mushrooms in our hills. All of East Bay Regional Park District and East Bay Municipal Utility District lands are off limits, and rangers will ticket if they catch you removing anything from these protected areas. If you want to hunt for mushrooms in these hills, you will need a friend who has private land where chanterelles thrive. Otherwise you’ll have to head up to Point Reyes National Seashore, where the legal limit is one quart of mushrooms, or continue north to Salt Point State Park, where you can legally bag five pounds of the suckers in a day.

Perhaps the most basic problem for beginning mushroom hunters is learning to see them. Experienced foragers talk about “getting your mushroom eyes on” at the beginning of each season and scientists offer complex theories about pattern recognition. Even though chanterelles are practically neon orange compared to the muted colors of an autumn forest floor, some ineffable process needs to happen before the mushrooms will reveal themselves. It’s like a game of hide-and-seek, where after you find one person the rest come out and reveal themselves to you; once you find a chanterelle, you’re often able to find more.

Your first chanterelle will be much easier to find in the presence of an experienced forager, and in fact, you are hereby forewarned that there are mushrooms out there that can kill you! Learning to differentiate between the deadly and the delectable should be done under the tutelage of an experienced guide. Even excellent field guidebooks, like All That the Rain Promises and More, by mushroom guru David Arora, aren’t as reliable as a real-life guide who has earned his muddy boots.

Two common East Bay mushrooms, the amanita phalloides, also known as the death cap and the amantia ocreata or destroying angel, are deadly poisonous. Symptoms do not appear for 6-24 hours, by which time the unlucky person’s system has fully absorbed the toxins and terminal liver failure has begun. These two mushrooms account for the majority of all mushroom deaths, and can be easily mistaken for several edible varieties.

“Mushrooms are not that easy to identify from books because so many of them look alike. There are so many details involved—is it white or creamy? Are the gills brown or are they pinkish brown? If you don’t have good powers of observation, you need someone to help you out.” says San Francisco State University Mycology Professor Dennis DesJardin. “With flowering plants or with birds it doesn’t matter so much, because you’re not going to eat them,” he adds with a chuckle.

DesJardin learned to identify edible mushrooms from his grandparents, who emigrated from Switzerland to Crescent City in the 1920s. He remembers going out foraging with them at the tender age of three, and has foraged for and eaten wild mushrooms ever since. Many mushrooms hunters have similar stories of how they learned their trade, but most are reluctant to share their spots with strangers.

So what’s a would-be mushroom hunter to do? SF State offers mycology classes, and some individuals and organized groups, like Wild About Mushrooms or SPORE, will take you out and teach you the ways of wild mushrooms. Or you can join the Mycological Society of San Francisco (MSSF), the nation’s biggest collection of mushroom fiends. Their meetings are the third Tuesday of every month at the Randall Museum, located at 199 Museum Way in San Francisco, and include an identification table, a talk or a slide show, and the chance to hobnob with some seriously nerdy mushroom people. The talks and various forays are free, and once you’ve anted up you $25 membership fee, you also get a monthly newsletter (between September and May), access to a lively fungus chat room, the right to participate in the decision-making process, and membership in the culinary group. mssf.org

The MSSF also hosts an annual Fungus Fair at the Oakland Museum, with talks by famous mushroom authors, scientists and photographers, displays, microscopes, information tables, cooking demonstrations, and a wide variety of mushroom goods for sale: T-shirts, posters, coffee mugs, scarves dyed with mushrooms, and of course, the wild mushrooms themselves.

The Fair usually takes place in the beginning of December or end of November, and is widely attended by folks of all ages. You’ll be amazed how many people show up to gawk at the displays. This year’s fair is over, but don’t worry, chanterelles will be abundant in the hills as long as we get steady periods of rain, which means you’ll be able to find them at your favorite gourmet grocery store or restaurant. And if you’re ready for your first foray, check with the MSSF. Sponsored outings continue well into the beginning of spring. ❖

Chanterelles with Pears in Port Wine Sauce

David Campbell, President of the San Francisco Mycological Society, has been collecting chanterelles for over 30 years. He says that over the course of time and constant availability, he has grown weary of their charms more than once, but each time, new concepts of preparation have recaptured his interest. 

“Contrary to common opinion, the chanterelle actually performs quite well in spicy dishes, such as Mexican or Indian cuisine, and it is good with a variety of fruit elements, such as apricot or pear. As the story goes, I responded to a long skein of fruit related treatment of chanterelles by a chef friend a few years ago by deciding one day to try ruby port as a deglazing sauce. My wife, Jeanne, promptly upped the ante with sliced pears. Voila! We have been hard put to cook them otherwise ever since.
 
“We always use unsalted butter. The ruby port does not need to be too fancy—I usually pay about $10. For best results, the chanterelles should be properly aired to reduce excess moisture from their flesh prior to cooking. I prefer bosc pears, if available.

“In a skillet, brown generous slices of chanterelle in butter and then douse with a heavy splash of ruby port. Simmer to reduce port and mushroom liquid and then add sliced pears just as you shut off the heat. Polish with butter, season with salt and pepper. Recommended as an appetizer.”

 

Leonie Sherman is a freelance writer fascinated by food. Her work has appeared in the East Bay Express, Oakland Tribune and other local papers, as well as in the Earth Island Journal and other national magazines. She has reported for radio stations and newspapers from Southeast Alaska to Southeast Asia with a focus on the environment and women’s issues. She has built gardens and taught composting workshops on three continents. In her spare time, she is also a women’s self-defense instructor.