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!

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