Last fall about this time I found myself salivating over social media posts of wild mushroom harvests here on the North Coast. About the only thing I knew about wild mushrooms was that they are delicious and to take extra money to the farmers market when they're in season. I have a healthy fear (OK, I'm a fraidy cat) of eating a misidentified 'shroom and since I've always wanted to know more about mycology, I was all about learning from a seasoned forager. Aaron Ostrom, owner and co-founder of Pacific Outfitters, offered to share the experience with me so I called photographer Amy Kumler and we set out on a drizzly Saturday morning adventure.
We met for coffee in McKinleyville (the only location of the day I can share) and piled into Ostrom's SUV along with his dog Bear "The Champion Mushroom Hunter" with high hopes. He explained that we should be in luck since we'd had a little rain and mushrooms love damp weather. As we pulled out of the parking lot, he let us know we'd be stopping to pick up Tim Haywood, a guide and instructor for Pacific Outfitters Academy and Adventures. "We'll be going to one of Tim's favorite spots and the rule is once someone introduces you to a mushroom hunting spot, you can never go there without letting that person know or inviting them to come along." Haywood joined us with his hiking stick, a tool I was soon wishing I'd brought along. Mushroom hunting might as well be called mushroom hiking.
There were some comments from the guys about getting out the blindfolds and I realized they were only half-kidding. Kumler and I were sworn to secrecy about the locations, but frankly I don't think I'd be able to find any of the four spots again if I wanted to. Secretive foraging tips proffered included: Park on the opposite side of the road and not too close to where you're headed. Wear a jacket (even if it's not cold) and bring a bag, preferably something like a lightweight nylon bag — easiest to hide under that jacket you wore. Also, a sharp folding knife is in order. Ostrom has used his young son's garden tools on occasion as well.
Fungi love a lush habitat. The dense, wet greenery and decaying limbs smelled deliciously earthy as we scrambled around the area. Ostrom and Haywood began to spot examples of "The Queen of the Forest," beautiful, golden chanterelles (Cantherellus cibarius) first. This takes practice. Ostrom would be standing a few yards away from me and call out, "Lynn. What do you see?" I saw nothing. He would then point in the general direction of a find. "Lynn. What do you see?" Still nothing. I realized I was going to have to get with the program or I might not get to take any of these beauties home with me. I started thinking I could use a mushrooming dog — or a new pair of glasses.
As we moved from place to place our efforts were rewarded with several varieties of fungi. While the chanterelles with their mild, slightly peppery flavor were familiar to me, I was most excited about the hedgehog (Hydnum repandum) mushrooms. Why? Because even a novice like me can feel safe eating them. With their hamburger bun-like tops and their distinctive spiky underside, they have no poisonous lookalikes. A plentiful specimen locally is the California king bolete (Boletus edulis var. grandedulis). Ostrom held one aloft and declared, "Now this is what I call a champion mushroom." The tops are small compared to the stem of a bolete, which is firm and steak-like.
Another of nature's wonders of that day was the one lovely "cat's paw," or matsutake mushroom, we found. This is where those kiddy garden tools would have come in handy. Matsutakes (Tricholoma magnivelare) only show their caps above ground and must be dug out carefully. They are unique in flavor with hints of pine, cinnamon and a marine-like aroma. Matsutakes are what most licensed commercial mushroom pickers are looking for in the Pacific Northwest. They are coveted in Japan and most are exported. The samurai once hunted them for sport and I can relate. Trying to find a mushroom in the woods reminded me of looking for my golf ball.
We headed back to Haywood's place to divvy up our bounty and were graciously invited in for a delicious hot bowl of what else? Wild mushroom soup.