Nothing can quite compare to the excitement of finding edible mushrooms; I was literally jumping up and down the first time I spotted a patch on my own. I haven’t struck gold before, but I’d imagine that’s probably the closest feeling—except mushroom gold is tasty and pairs well with all sorts of things, from wine, to steak, to (believe it or not) ice cream. By foraging for food, we as humans are reconnected to deep, ancient rhythms and traditions that were part of the human experience for millions of years. And after trying a dish containing such divinity as the golden chanterelle, one can see why the Roman emperor Nero termed mushrooms “the food of the gods.”
It may surprise you to learn that humans are more closely related to fungi than any other kingdom, and yet we know the least about them. And here in America, many people tend to be mycophobic (mushroom-fearing), compared to other cultures such as the Italians who are mycophilic (mushroom-loving). Yes, some mushrooms are poisonous and even deadly, but some mushrooms are drop-dead delicious and nutritious to boot. Also, many are actually highly medicinal and are currently being studied for their health benefits, including the treatment of cancer.
Of the estimated 1.5 - 5 million species of fungi on earth, only about 14,000 have been scientifically studied so far. The scientific study of mushrooms is called mycology, and I can’t bring up mycology without mentioning Paul Stamets, who has been studying mushrooms for over 40 years. He is the foremost authority on the subject, and believes that fungi can save our lives and restore our ecosystems—including helping bees recover from colony collapse.
I look forward to attending an upcoming foray in Mendocino with The Fungus Federation of Santa Cruz. Those new to foraging should go on organized forays, spend time with experts doing identification at events, take classes such as those offered at FFSC, and use a good field guide—recommended for central California is Mushrooms Demystified by David Arora, who started the Santa Cruz Fungus Fair 41 years ago while he was a student at UCSC. A guide specific to the Santa Cruz area is to be released this summer—Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast: A Comprehensive Guide to the Fungi of Coastal Northern California by Noah Siegel and Christian Schwartz. When it rains it spores. Really, it does.
Be careful if you’re new to foraging for mushrooms and make sure you identify your findings with a mycologist before consuming, as many varieties have “look-alikes” that are toxic, some even deadly. In addition, always cook your mushrooms before enjoying the fruits of your labor. Raw mushrooms are difficult to digest because their cell walls are made of chitin (the same thing that exoskeletons of arthropods are made of), which breaks down during cooking. They can also contain harmful microbes, which are killed by cooking, and some delicious edibles, including morels, are actually toxic when raw.
As the adage goes, “There are old mushroom hunters and bold mushroom hunters, but there are no old, bold mushroom hunters.”
Read the full guide, published on SantaCruz.com.
American Journal of Botany http://www.amjbot.org/content/98/3/426.full
Fungi Perfecti http://www.fungi.com/about-paul-stamets.html
Fungus Federation of Santa Cruz http://ffsc.us
The Mycota of Santa Cruz County http://scmycoflora.org/index.php
Bertelsen, Cynthia. Mushroom: A Global History, Reaktion Books Ltd (London), 2013.
Kuo, Michael. 100 Edible Mushrooms, University of Michigan, 2007.
Rogers, Robert. The Fungal Pharmacy: The Complete Guide to Medicinal Mushrooms & Lichens of North America, North Atlantic Books (Berkeley, CA), 2011.