Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Foraging Report : Candy Cap Mushroom Bonanza

Last week, I pulled the bag of dried mushrooms out of the pantry and opened it, trying to figure out a way to use such a large quantity of dehydrated candy caps.

Their maple-syrup smell escaped immediately and umami richness filled the house for several days afterwards, causing people who walked in the door to ask "What is that amazing smell?" How did I get such a stash of candy caps?

Day tripping

In December, I decided that for my birthday, I wanted to pick mushrooms. Even though I've taken a mushroom growing class (with an ID slideshow) and gone on several foraging trips with experts over the past few years, I didn't feel confident going alone. Mushrooms are no joke.

You should be careful about everything you forage, and never eat anything you can't identify with complete confidence, but mushrooms are trickier than most. Pick what looks like a white button mushroom, but is really the early growth stages of the Destroying Angel, and you can guess what will happen. It is aptly named.
The fruits of our labor

So we went on a guided mushroom foraging expedition, led by Forage SF. We headed a couple of hours up the coast to Salt Point State Park, where picking mushrooms is legal - there you can pick up to five pounds per person per day. 

We all assembled in the parking lot, had a short lecture, including mushroom foraging etiquette: use your knife to cleanly cut the stem at ground level, leaving the base to produce further mushrooms and leave the area as undisturbed as possible.  Scattering bits of broken mushrooms on the ground is bad form. 

We then walked along a road, suddenly seeing mushrooms everywhere. Even covering territory, which had clearly been picked recently, we immediately found many different types. I would eagerly bring a mushroom to the guide, who again and again would say, "That one's not edible - it's not poisonous, just not so tasty," or occasionally, "Yep, that one would kill you." 

I tried to train my eyes to recognize a few distinct varieties. It took a few minutes for them to focus into "mushroom vision," where they zero in on certain shapes and colors half-hidden under leaves and undergrowth. It's like setting up a mental filter where you're only allowing certain types of information to enter your brain, ignoring all of the distractions and focusing intently on the goal. 

The translucent Jellyfoot
I started to get into a rhythm, searching for dark spots under certain types of trees for Black Trumpets (a type of chanterelle) and beginning to recognize the graceful, nut-brown silhouette of the Candy Cap. Somehow, candy caps became something we felt comfortable with, and it was clearly their peak season. We came back with bags of them. 

We also found Hedgehog mushrooms and a strange little Jellyfoot - a translucent mushroom that was the most delicate and beautiful mushroom I've ever seen. We found another chanterelle variety called Yellow Foot and tons of Pig's Ears. Then, as we were walking back to the car, I found one of the sought-after standard Chanterelles, a big one, newly emerging. Victory!

Once we got home, we cooked up a storm, frying the lone true Chanterelle in butter and cooking down the Pig's Ear as a polenta topping. The Chanterelle was, well, very buttery. The Pig's Ear, although it had great meaty texture, was admittedly a bit bland. I don't think we'd bother to collect it again.

Even after preparing a feast for friends, we still had so much  We started to worry about how to preserve it all, and then I remembered my friend's dehydrator - our lifesaver. We sliced and diced, stacked trays that looked like intricate mosaics and the dehydrator whirred into life. So easy!

Interested in learning how to ID mushrooms yourself? It rained just a few days ago, so now is the perfect time to head for the hills to pick some mushrooms.

It's still mushroom season, they're just not as abundant as they are in December and January. Tag along on a foray with the SF Mycological Society - they have a trip scheduled for next weekend - or just join them for one of their monthly mushroom feasts.

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