From spore to plate — Exploring California’s wild, edible mushrooms

 

“Welcome to another lousy day in the woods — we’re not going to have any fun or enjoy ourselves, at all.”

Clinging to raincoats and collecting baskets, the 40 or so strangers clustered in the parking lot of Salt Point State Park chuckled at Jim Wheeler, president of the Sonoma County Mycological Association’s (SOMA) board of directors. Most of the assembled group had never hunted for wild mushrooms before, and the majority of those would never repeat the experience again.

But all had gathered, for just a few hours, to participate in an ancient tradition of wit and survival that has been reduced in modern times to a rare hobby: the gathering and preparing of wild edible mushrooms.

To the west, waves broke lazily on the rocky shoreline beneath a turquoise sky. Inland, a mixed forest of redwood stands and bishop pines towered above. Creek beds swollen with recent rains tumbled into pregnant pools.

Before the hunt commenced, Wheeler introduced Patrick Hamilton, the association’s foray leader and local celebrity mycochef. Clad in earth tones and sporting a discreet gray ponytail and robust soul patch, the tall Hamilton later told me that his wardrobe choices were a remnant of an old habit of hiding in the woods so no one would follow him to his best-kept secrets — patches of chanterelles and morels that could take years to find. That might explain why Hamilton gave scant instruction to the eager newcomers, explaining that only once has someone been so lost during the group’s monthly mushroom forays as to cower among the towering redwoods overnight before finally stumbling back to the civilized world of Highway 1. Why would anyone get lost in a well-traveled state park latticed with so many marked trails? Because, as one of the more experienced foragers put it, “trails are for losers.”

And with that, the hunt began. Soon, all eyes were focused on the ground, scanning the drab leaf litter for the day’s prizes — golden chanterelles, black trumpets and hedgehogs. Some foragers toted wicker baskets, others brown bags. Two women gripped pastel Easter baskets. Competitive intuition told each of us that food would be found by those with the keenest eyes, and food meant survival. I stood still. “But wait! How do I know what’s edible? Can I pick up the mushrooms? Can I smell them? If I lick my fingers later will I hallucinate? Can I die?” No one answered.

With sharpened gazes and quieted footsteps, the hunters dispersed widely. Ten minutes later I was nibbling on my first find — until the taste became so peppery that I had to spit it out. It turns out that I couldn’t tell a tasty chanterelle from a poisonous jack-o’-lantern, but I hungered to fill my basket with the wild morsels camouflaged all around me. Miniscule calypso orchids, or fairy slippers, looked giant; the drying redwood and pine needles crunched with distinct tone. My eyes, so accustomed to blurry screens, were keen with purpose. But my basket was empty.

When I’d bump into another ground-gazer and spot a partially decayed black trumpet at the bottom of their sack, I’d ask, “Where did you find that?” with a mixture of envy and disgust (maggots and mites infest all but the freshest mushroom caps).

The true conquerors, of course, are the forest’s vast networks of mycelia — the thread-like structures that make up the bulk of fungal organisms. In a single square inch of soil, there can be more than eight miles of mycelium cells. The mycelia break down organic material on wood, dung, humus and pretty much any other living or formerly living tissue. The dense networks help hold soil together while feeding nutrients to shrubs and trees — simultaneously disassembling and assembling nature.

After a few hours alone in the woods, I turned back to the trail, disappointed but calm. My bag held only a few mysterious slender gray-capped mushrooms and a mostly decayed black trumpet, but a black trumpet nonetheless. Although I’d been warned not to bother looking among the redwoods because naturally high concentrations of tannin in their bark has evolved to fight off fungal infection, I couldn’t help scanning the redwood litter on the trail’s edge. And there it was, my greatest accomplishment of the day, maybe the week: a smooth, uninfested, fleshy, broad-gilled, fluted chanterelle. I wriggled my fingers through wet, cool dirt and extracted my prize with glee.

* * *

Neither plant nor animal, mushrooms are the visible fruiting bodies of vast networks of fungi, organisms that scientists believe could represent some of the largest and oldest living specimens on Earth — like the honey fungus in Oregon that measures nearly two-and-a-half miles across and is estimated to be some 2,400 years old. Growing from detritus and water, fungi are nature’s most ubiquitous and efficient recyclers. As they decompose dead plant matter and return valuable nutrients to the soil, later to be taken up by future generations of green plants that support life on this planet, fungi pack their reproductive structures — mushrooms — full of amino acids and minerals.

Historically, mushrooms were available only to those with the knowledge and gall to gather and eat them, often risking death if they picked the wrong kind. Commercial mushroom farming now makes a handful of edible mushroom species available to the masses. Today, mushroom farming in California is expanding at an unprecedented rate. Growers hope that mushrooms will compete with vegetables and meat for space on dinner plates, especially among consumers searching for sustainably harvested food that doesn’t take much water to grow.

Mushrooms, like meat, have protein and contain glutamate — the umami amino acid that signals brain receptors in the same way that meat does. But unlike animals, mushrooms are entirely renewable and can be cultivated on recycled material that would otherwise end up in a landfill, and the byproducts can be used as fertilizer for other crops. Plus, they’re healthy. It all sounds simple. So why hasn’t a brown revolution gone viral?

The hunt for an answer led me from Salt Point to Far West Fungi, an organic family farm in Moss Landing, California, where the scent of brussels sprouts and over-ripening strawberries is cut with a salty breeze from the Pacific, whose waves crash within earshot of the farm. The heavy air tastes umami.

Far West Fungi’s facilities stand out as an array of white warehouses in a sea of green fields. In the same way that the region’s fog regulates year-round temperature and spritzes its world-renowned produce, the climate is ideal for growing mushrooms. But mushrooms biosynthesize rather than photosynthesize. Thus the warehouses keep the fungi cool, moist and in the dark.

Tucked behind the warehouses are a small stucco house and an office, Far West Fungi’s production headquarters. Behind the desk sits Kyle Garrone, son of this farm’s founders and manager of the Moss Landing facilities. Garrone’s features are obscured beneath a baggy sweatshirt and beanie, a style more typical of Central Coast surfers than farmers. He admits that his family got into the business 25 years ago not for a deep love of mushrooms but as a smart investment in a promising business. He grew up closer to San Francisco than to ag country, and though he doesn’t consider himself a farmer, he’s chosen to live and work on the farm, where his undergraduate degree in plant sciences from UC Davis comes in handy. He claims not to love mushrooms any more than the next Whole Foods shopper — then he confides that he’ll never go on a second date with a girl if he finds out she doesn’t like mushrooms.

We poke our heads in one of the warehouses. When I close my eyes, it smells like I’m back at Salt Point, nose just above a chanterelle surrounded by decaying leaves. Endless rows of shelves are stacked floor to ceiling with blocks of growth substrate wrapped in plastic, from which startling clusters of multi-colored mushrooms spring out—the shiitakes in earthen browns, the white oysters in subdued greys, yellow oysters countering with sulfuric tones, the pioppinis standing erect with slender stalks and smooth rust-colored caps. In the warehouses, the labor of weeks of carefully designed cultivation methods are realized as mushrooms burst from the mycelium.

To understand this room, we move around a corner to the very beginning of the production pipeline: piles of old furniture.

In order to access nutrients from the environment, mycelia secrete acids and enzymes to break down organic matter into absorbable molecules — which is why mushrooms can grow on just about any organic matter as long as it has enough water and air for the mycelia to penetrate. Far West Fungi chooses to grow its mushrooms on recycled wood furniture. Their mushrooms grow food from society’s trash.

As Garrone’s tour continues, his pride in the family business becomes more apparent, especially as he discusses the company’s high standards for bioefficiency and sustainability. Far West Fungi produces an average of 15,000 pounds of mushrooms a week — mostly shiitakes and oysters. Twenty percent of that goes to local farmer’s markets and the rest to Whole Foods stores across Northern California, plus Rainbow Grocery, the Berkeley Bowl and online gourmet delivery services like Farm Fresh to You and Blue Apron. The family is opening an additional facility in Morgan Hill, and between the two locations, hopes to produce 40,000 pounds a week, expanding sales to Southern California and larger grocery chains.

From discarded armchair to market, the Moss Landing facility uses 2.5 million gallons of water per year for the whole facility, and the water comes from Watsonville’s wastewater treatment facility just north of Moss Landing. Garrone says their biggest source of waste is the plastic bags the substrate sits in, to prevent water loss during fruiting. The used substrate is entirely compostable.

If it’s true that Far West Fungi uses 2.5 million gallons of water per year to produce 15,000 pounds of mushrooms per week, that comes down to less than one third of a gallon of water per pound of mushroom. Compare that to beef, which requires nearly 1,800 gallons of water per pound produced, according to the Water Footprint Network. Chickens need over 450 gallons per pound, soybeans over 200 gallons, and wheat and corn over 100 gallons.

Large swaths of California are currently in a state of “exceptional drought” and “extreme drought” — designations by the U.S. Drought Monitor. Last April, Gov. Jerry Brown mandated statewide reductions in water use in California, where 80 percent of water is consumed by the agriculture sector. Reducing meat consumption is an obvious solution to the water crisis, but few want to lose that certain satisfaction of eating meat, that quality — umami — so characteristic of animal products … and mushrooms.

Fungi form a fundamental part of nature’s foundation by recycling, replenishing and sustaining. What they do for forests, they can do for society. If a revolution is in order, why not make it a brown one?

* * *

Fungal pollen was found in the plaque of a Stone Age woman, known as the Red Lady, dated to 19,000 years ago. This is the earliest evidence of mushrooms in the human diet, and strongly suggests that fungus has been central to our evolution. Ötzi the iceman — found in the Alps and estimated to have lived around 5,300 years ago — carried with him into death several mushroom varieties. Mushrooms have sustained human life as food and medicine since our beginnings. They’ve also been used to take life. Roman Emperor Claudius was killed via death cap. Two Popes met their forced fates the same way. Many scholars believe that Guantanamo Buddha died of mushroom poisoning.

Perhaps because of these rare yet pernicious tales of death by fungus, North American culture emerged as largely mycophobic. But a world without fungus would be unrecognizable to us. Over 85 percent of plants studied so far have symbiotic relationships with mycorrhizal fungi. The current estimate of the number of species in the fungi kingdom is between 1.5 and 7 million. Only 5 percent have been named and described. We are just beginning to understand the true scope of fungi’s role in nature, and creative mycologists are constantly harnessing unique properties of fungi in novel ways — from pharmaceuticals to bioremediation to packing material.

At the same time, people like Hamilton are working hard to make mushrooms mainstream. A professionally trained chef and experienced mycologist, Hamilton has been hunting mushrooms in California since the 1970s. As the head of SOMA’s foray program, his mission is to teach the public about safety and etiquette of wild mushroom hunting.

Hamilton has witnessed firsthand a massive surge in mushroom foraging in recent years. “It satisfies a real primordial urge that we are hunting for our own food,” he says. For Hamilton, foraging began as “the thrill of finding something that other chefs wouldn’t find common or on their plates.” Now it’s different.

“When I first started doing this,” he says, “we would hide from each other in the woods, getting down on our bellies to hide our patches. We used to pick all the mushrooms before anyone else could find them and wait for them to grow back.” Lately, Hamilton’s actions have shifted radically. “Now I write columns and lead forays and teach classes for people to learn how to identify mushrooms, and I feel good having passed something on that I learned clandestinely. I teach them everything I know.”

Well, not everything. “If you die withholding knowledge, you lose. But I’ll never take people to my patches.”

Despite the growing number of recreational mushroom foragers, access to public space where collecting is allowed has become increasingly limited in California. Hamilton’s transition from rule-bending forager to public figure and teacher (a change he’s lost friends over) is an effort to combat anti-foraging policy and expand public access to parks for collecting.

“The more people we get in the woods, we might have a voting block to talk to the California State Parks and say, ‘You’re denying a pastime of thousands of people,’” Hamilton says.

Back at Salt Point, I returned to the parking lot for the post-foray potluck and identification class eager to show off my chanterelle and rapidly fading black trumpet. Law stipulates that each individual can collect no more than five pounds of wild mushrooms. I didn’t even come close.

I lost my nerve to share my finds when I saw the baskets of two kids who couldn’t have been more than eight years old brimming with a display of golden chanterelles, black trumpets, and hedgehogs that looked straight out of my guidebook. They said it was easy.

Despite a nearby picnic table heaping with the group’s collected finds, most of the mushrooms shared at SOMA’s potluck were store-bought. Tired and hungry from the foray, the group dove into the food with gusto. As I waited for my turn to scoop up the maitake mushrooms with spinach and zatar, I wondered why we were all fighting for the earthy, salty dish as if it were a rarely caught bison feeding a hungry village. Hunger was not a concern here, and fungus is everywhere.

(Homepage image courtesy of George P. Macklin via Flickr/Creative Commons.)