November 17, 2005
by BOB DORAN
My destination: The home of Barry the mushroom collector. He prefers to be identified by his first name only, seeking to avoid phone calls from those looking for their own guide to wild mushroom troves. Where he lives and where we found our treasures will also remain undisclosed.
There's a dichotomy in the world of mushroom hunters. Those who are passionate about wild, edible fungi can be almost evangelic in their zeal, but simultaneously quite secretive when it comes to the location of productive mushroom patches.
As the winter rains begin, it's the peak of the season, with wild mushrooms popping up, as the saying goes, like mushrooms -- on roadsides and in the woods all over the county.
This weekend serious fungus hounds from the Humboldt Bay Mycological Society scour the county gathering all the specimens they can. (See sidebar, Scientists, Profiteers and the annual Mushroom Fair, below.) Since this is a particularly rich habitat for fungi, they will likely collect at least 500-600 different species -- among them, just a few of the edible, delicious sort that are of interest to hunters like Barry.
Into the woods
As we headed up a winding road through one of Humboldt's many conifer forests, Barry filled me in on his life as a mushroomer. He began searching for edible fungus when he was a teenager growing up in Marin County. "But," he said, "I didn't know much about them and I looked in the wrong places. Then when I started going to Humboldt State in the mid-'70s I discovered the ones here."
With assistance from some friends who knew more than he, he discovered the local edibles and grew secure in the identification of at least a few species. He makes no claims of expertise in mushroom taxonomy. "I never took classes on mushrooms," he said. "When you're a psych major with a film minor, you don't get into a lot of science classes."
Right: Hedgehog mushroom
Over time, exploring the woods, he found several reliable patches where the output was prodigious. By the early '80s, he was finding more than he could consume.
"I was picking these big, hard, solid chanterelles and hedgehogs. You call them biscuits. And they were so good. When I found I could pick two five-gallon buckets in an afternoon, I knew I couldn't eat that many, or even give that many away."
The time seemed right to get into mushroom sales. "I didn't bother with the restaurants around here," he recalled. "I just called the really good ones in the Bay Area. And they were happy to hear from me."
Barry ended up shipping hedgehogs via Greyhound to Alice Waters, chef for Chez Panisse, and to Mark Miller at the Fourth Street Grill, both in Berkeley. Both were on their way to culinary superstardom, leaders in the movement toward using fresh, local, seasonal ingredients in restaurant cooking.
"When I was picking for Chez Panisse, I got a call after I sent down a few batches," said Barry. "Of course I'd only send her the perfect ones. I'd cut them above the ground and dust off the spruce needles, clean them up. Anyway, I got this call from Alice Waters, she said, `Barry, are you washing these mushrooms?' I told her, `No. I couldn't wash them and expect them to be in good shape after shipping. That's up to you to do.'
"She said, `Well, I've never seen mushrooms so perfect.' She wondered if I was growing them. I explained that you can't grow them and that I just pick them in a very clean forest. Her response: 'Just keep them coming.'"
What makes them wild?
By their very nature, most of the sought-after edible mushrooms found locally -- hedgehogs, chanterelles, boletes and matsutakes, are inherently wild. They cannot be cultivated.
What makes a wild mushroom wild? I put the question to Terry Henkel, who teaches mycology (fungus science) at Humboldt State University.
In an office tucked behind the HSU mycology lab, I began with what seemed a simple question: What got him interested in the study of mushrooms? His answer sent us on a surprising tangent.
He said he'd been interested in botany since he was a boy exploring the Ohio woods. "So I got into the study of plants and associated organisms. Fungi are definitely not plants, but they're lumped under the aegis of botany in a broader sense."
Left: Terry Henkel. Photo by Heidi Walters.
Mushrooms are not plants? I asked, betraying my ignorance. "No! They're not," Henkel replied, adding, "We've got to get you straightened out."
"Fungi as a group are in their own kingdom. They have a distinct evolutionary history that's absolutely separate from true plants -- green plants -- as we know them. As a matter of fact, as a large kingdom level group, fungi are more closely related to animals, evolutionarily."
I felt slightly less ignorant when told that thinking of fungi as plants is a common misconception. "They're put in with plants because they tend to be stationary, non-mobile organisms," said Henkel, shifting into professorial mode. "But they have a lot of other features, including their DNA, that clearly indicates that they're on their own evolutionary trajectory.
"The ways that they're similar to animals are that they have heterotrophic nutrition: They have to eat things. They have to get their nutrition externally."
The means by which they feed is what makes wild mushrooms wild. "In the case of chanterelles, and almost all of the highly-prized edible mushrooms in our area, what we have are mycorrhizal mushrooms. Mycorrhizal: They form symbiotic associations with the root systems of suitable host trees in the environment. Chanterelles, King boletes, hedgehogs, they're all ectomycorrhizal. They all live in direct contact with host trees. In our area those are usually in the pine family, which includes Douglas fir and Sitka spruce, or members of the oak family, typically tan oak."
As Henkel explained it, the relationship between trees and fungi is more than an important boost for both. The organisms are "mutually interdependent" -- they need each other. The fungus and the tree form a give-and-take symbiotic relationship, one that has never been artificially replicated successfully.
"The fungi absorb water and mineral nutrients from the soil and transfer those into the plant and in return, they're fed carbon nutrition -- the carbohydrates that they need to get externally. All of this goes on below ground or inside rotting logs, in places that are generally hidden from our direct view -- unless you start digging around.
"What people are after are the fruiting bodies of the fungus, the reproductive structures. That's what we see above ground. We like to eat those -- if they're edibles. They're there to produce spores on specialized cells that disperse the fungus and create new generations."
So, what we search for in the woods is the fruit of a mycelium, a subterranean organism living in conjunction with a tree in an intricately interconnected eco-system.
Stepping out of the vehicle, it seemed that the entire forest floor was carpeted with tiny mushrooms that had pushed their way through the leaves and fir needles. Since they were not of an edible variety, Barry showed little interest, immediately rambling off into the underbrush in search of hedgehogs and other delights. In short order we came across a couple of King boletes, looking very much like your classic image of a mushroom with white stems and brown caps, and a chanterelle, a golden gem that seems to have gills. Barry deftly plucked all of them from the duff and slipped them into his bag.
The primary quest that day was for hedgehogs. Barry, who no longer sells out of the area, had an order from Folie Douce in Arcata. The boletes were destined for Avalon in Eureka. He explained that he seldom gathers chanterelles to sell -- not because he doesn't have a market for them, but because there just aren't enough in the spots he knows best.
Making my way through the brush back toward the road, I heard Barry up ahead talking to the owners of the property, who were on their way into town. The driver, a friendly chap with a silver mustache, wished Barry luck on his search, admitting that he knows nothing of wild mushrooms -- can't tell one from another. Barry offered to leave a bag of mushrooms on their porch, the man's wife thanked him and all of us went on our way.
When he finds spots with mushrooms in large quantity, Barry's personal policy is to seek out the landowners and ask for permission to pick. As we drove along he pointed out "private property" and "no trespassing signs" and noted a prodigious patch where, as he explained, the owner's son likes to pick the mushrooms. He stays out.
He worries that some fungus collectors may not appreciate the fact that he is talking about mushroom hunting. The fear comes from a couple of things. One is competition. All gatherers have their "secret spots," productive bits of mushroom habitat that they don't want others to stumble across. Then there is the real worry that inexperienced hunters looking to make a fast buck may sour landowners on mushroomers in general. Certainly there are hunters who ignore private property and no-trespassing signs as they tromp through the woods.
He noted that the first leg of our hunt was just the preliminary to a visit to a prime patch he calls "hedgehog heaven." Down a side road and up a driveway marked private, we came to a big, beautiful house in the woods. Barry discovered the place a few years back while delivering building materials to the former owners. When the house changed hands two years ago, he cultivated a relationship with the new owners.
As with the previous residents, once a year he takes them out for a lavish dinner at Folie Douce, where he maintains a trade account. "They order whatever they want and we get some good wine. It's great. They've told me I don't have to do it, but I insist."
There were a fair number of mushrooms visable from the driveway. A small bolete had recently popped up just a few feet from where we parked. Crossing a meadow behind the house, we came across an orchard caged in an electric fence.
"They had to put it up to save their fruit trees from the bears," explained Barry, who seemed more worried that the household's friendly German shepherds would follow us and, while bounding with glee through the brush, disturb and/or destroy some unsuspecting mushroom. I watched my step, striving not to be a crushing bounder.
According to Barry, humans seem to be the only creatures in the woods interested in hedgehogs. "The mushrooms we're looking at now, they'll still be growing in March," he said as we passed hillsides covered in small bone-colored specimens, all with the spiny undersides that led to the name. He left most of the hedgehogs we saw behind -- "too small" was the repeated refrain. "Why pick it now, when I can only get 50 cents for it, when it will grow into a $3 mushroom later?" he asked, rhetorically.
While he bypassed most of the hedgehogs we saw, he was delighted to find numerous boletes -- Boletus edulis, aka porcini mushrooms, which he described as "ephemeral."
"Boletes are only commercially viable for about a month, some years two months," he explained. And within that short season, the life cycle of the bolete is even shorter. If you miss them one day, it's likely they'll be gone the next.
"When the King bolete comes up there's a fly that's immediately attracted to it. They lay eggs in it, and it seems like it only takes hours for maggots to start consuming it. Within a few hours it's riddled with little tiny holes.
"Boletes are really prone to that. Oyster mushrooms get something similar. The effect is that I can't sell them -- but I can take them home and clean out the maggoty parts, slice them up, cook them or dry them. The maggots aren't dangerous. They're not going to hurt you, they just look nasty."
Dan McHugh, executive chef at Folie Douce in Arcata, concurred on the ephemeral nature of the porcini. "If there's any trace of bugs on the boletus, they go super quick. Usually what I like to do with them is dehydrate them in the oven overnight. I slice them thin and put them on a rack, put them in there after I turn the ovens off for the night. The next day they're dry. Then I'll rehydrate them in warm water and use the liquid to flavor sauces."
Left: Dan McHugh. Photo by Bob Doran.
McHugh has a half dozen other pickers besides Barry who bring him hedgehogs and chanterelles. "What I've been doing with the wild mushrooms this week is making a strudel with filo dough. I use sautéed hedgehogs and chanterelles along with spinach, caramelized onions and some of this new cheese from Cypress Grove, UFO -- it's a hard sheep milk cheese that tastes kind of like aged gruyère. It makes a really nice combination.
"Last week, I served that with a sun-dried tomato and oil-cured olive sauce with shallots and a reduction of white wine and cream. This week I'm doing a cream sauce with dried porcinis and sage. We serve it as a vegetarian entrée with a side of vegetables or as an appetizer. People seem to love it; we sell out every night we do it."
Wild mushrooms also show up in omelets served during Sunday brunch at Folie Douce, and on the restaurant's famous wood-fire oven baked pizzas. "One of our favorite pizzas is topped with sautéed wild mushrooms, caramelized onions, fontina cheese and fresh thyme," said McHugh. "Sometimes we'll make a truffle oil aioli to drizzle on top. The truffle oil is kind of pricey, but jeez I love that stuff."
McHugh pulled some truffle oil from his personal stash when I dined with friends at Folie Douce Friday. Crafting a special appetizer, he suspended thin slices of chanterelle and hedgehog in aspic flavored with Madera and thyme, sliced it and laid it like spokes of a wheel around a mound of duck liver pâté, the whole thing garnished with roasted beets tossed in a walnut oil vinaigrette and shaved marinated truffle, then drizzled with truffle oil and served with crostinis. Sublime.
"I have to admit, I have mixed feelings about wild mushrooms," said McHugh. "I'm excited when the season starts up, but I'm also relieved when it's done. Buying them gets pretty spendy and you have to look at the bottom line. In the rainy season, when you sauté them you may cook half the weight out of them as water.
"The wild mushroom game is pretty intense. You get your fair share of tweakers coming in with bags full of mushrooms mixed with dirt and pine needles. They don't want a check; they need cash. On the other hand, I love dealing with people like Barry who know their stuff and who know that I'm looking to buy quality mushrooms. And Barry does part of his in trade; that makes it totally worth it. Ultimately, we do it because people love wild mushrooms."
Into the frying pan
Back at Barry's place, we laid out the afternoon's take on the bottom of an old wine barrel. While there were not as many hedgehogs as he'd promised Folie Douce, there were enough fine boletes to make up the difference and still fill his order with Avalon.
"Are you hungry?" he asked, and we scooped up the mushrooms and headed indoors where he skillfully whittled away the bad portions of the buggy boletes, then cooked them in butter. The plate of mushrooms he handed me was a far cry from mundane button mushrooms (Agaricus bisporus or, as Barry termed them, Agaricus Safewayus), firmer in texture in a way that helped me see them as closer to animal than vegetable.
"Should I cook up that chanterelle?" he asked, referring to the fine specimen you can see on the cover of this week's edition. "Absolutely!" I replied, and a few minutes later we were enjoying the utterly distinct flavor of chanterelles, basking in sheer wild mushroom bliss.
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