mushroom hunting

Foraging and eating wild mushrooms is something that seems to strike terror in the heart of many Americans. Everyone is all too familiar with the newspaper accounts of whole families dying after consuming a tasty meal of mistaken mushrooms. But in other parts of the world where the history and knowledge of careful mushroom identification is passed along from generation to generation, eating wild mushrooms is a commonplace occurrence.

I grew up with Italian grandparents and other family friends who routinely foraged for mushrooms. So at a very young age I was not only eating finds straight from the woods (with never a worry about being poisoned) but I also knew exactly what porcini looked like in their natural (unsliced, undried) state (and that they were more properly known as Boletus edulis. What a nerdy kid I was!)

In the last few years there’s been a rediscovery of foraging and all types of wild edibles. Groups like ForageSF in San Francisco are forming communities around wild foods and foraging. I’m a big supporter of this trend, but I’m also cautious. Anytime something becomes a fad there’s the potential for lots of people to rush into it with only a limited amount of knowledge. And at the risk of sounding like I’ve joined the ranks of fungi fear-mongerers, it’s true that in this case lack of knowledge can be fatal.

Right now it’s porcini season here in Northern California so fungi foragers are all crazily trying to beat each other to the mushroom motherlode. Luckily porcini don’t really have any deadly lookalikes so theoretically it’s a good one for beginners. The more serious problem is that no novice is going to stand a chance against the veterans when it comes to knowing where and when to find them!

For anyone who’s interested in foraging for mushrooms, I recommend finding a local mycological association to start learning through whatever classes, workshops, and forays they offer. This past weekend I was part of a group foray organized by the Mycological Society of San Francisco.  The wealth of knowledge in this group (and others like it) is always awe-inspiring and extremely humbling. I’ve never been out with these people without having my head nearly throbbing by the end with newly absorbed information.

This past weekend our group found a fair number of the prize porcini, but the area had been pretty well scoured by large groups of Russian families doing the same thing. My bounty included quite a few beautiful specimens of Coccoli (pictured above). Of the many varieties of mushrooms we found, I chose to feature this one in my post–not just because it’s what I found most of–but more so because it’s a perfect example of why I am still a very cautious forager. Coccoli, while edible, happen to bear a striking resemblance to one of the most deadly mushrooms in the world, Amanita phalloides (known affectionately as the “Death Cap.”) This is the kind of thing that’s good to know when you are starting out in the world of foraging!

That said, I encourage people to get outside and find their own food. Just do it wisely and sensibly!


In the last few years there have been a growing number of food events in the Bay Area focusing on butchery and whole animal utilization. I actually don’t eat much meat but in an ongoing effort to be a more responsible and informed omnivore I’ve been closely following this trend. (Also see my post on Goat Butchery back in February.)

Last night I went to one of these meat events called “Primal” that also added wood fired cooking into the mix. It was held under the stars amidst the vineyards at Chase Cellars in Napa Valley. Some of the best meat-oriented chefs and butchers in the area (Chris Cosentino of Incanto and Boccalone, Staffan Terje of Perbacco, Taylor Boetticher of Fatted Calf and many others) demonstrated breaking down a pig, goat, cow, and lamb and cooked up the end products on raging wood bonfires.

As the fires burned into the night, the chefs served course after course of meat, from goat tail to beef heart. Refreshingly, Jeremy Fox of Ubuntu was also cooking up fire-roasted vegetarian fare. Meanwhile guests were sampling wine and beer from a wide variety of boutique vintners and brewers.

As captivating as it was to see (and taste) whole animals cooking in the most pure and basic way, my overall impression of the evening was that a lot of people were simply drawn in by the decadence of the all-you-can-eat parade of meat. A handful of others seemed genuinely interested in either the cooking techniques and/or issues related to the whole animal. But the people who seemed to be having the most fun were actually the chefs who were relishing the opportunity to do what they do best and do it outside over an open fire.

For those interested I have more photos from the night on my Flickr photostream and there’s another Primal event happening in Atlanta on November 21.

the hunter’s moon

After last week’s sunrise excursion, it seemed only fitting that we should bookend the experience by watching a moonrise. And in perfect timing the full moon, specifically the Hunter’s Moon, fell on Monday. This time we took a picnic dinner and arrived just as the faintest trace of the moon was showing against the blue sky. Then the sun set, the moon rose and the hazy sky was thick with intense pinks, blues and lavender. So much color it was almost sickening!

There’s something about a new moon that always makes me want to take a moment, stare at the sky and contemplate my place in the universe. According to Stephanie Gailing at Planetary Apothecary this particular Scorpio/Taurus Full Moon was supposed to be a time to evaluate what makes us feel good–mentally, emotionally and physically. Even before I read her words I happened to be having these same thoughts. I guess it’s always good to reflect on what makes us feel safe, secure and affirmed but it’s nice to have the moon to remind us!