The act of foraging can be seen as a somewhat desperate mode of survivalism: picking and scraping the land for the bare minimum of dietary needs. But for many local lovers of food and the outdoors, foraging is actually quite the contrary: It can entail making hundreds, even thousands, of dollars in a weekend since some of the so-called scraps it produces are prized as local delicacies.
In fact, in the view of Matt Beckett, chef at Linn’s in Cambria and longtime mushroom hunter and seller, foraging is kind of like mining for gold.
The description is surprisingly apt, considering that the most popular food to forage in the San Luis Obispo area—the chanterelle mushroom, sometimes called queen of the woods—is distinguished by its orangey-gold color and large, dense and flat structure. A sought-after, pricey mushroom in the culinary world, it can be found under coastal oak trees, free for the picking (as long as you’re on public land) throughout the winter (beginning right after the first rain, until as late as May).
Of course, since chanterelles are wild, seasonal and dependent on rainfall, it is challenging to truly make a sustainable living from picking chanterelles. But that doesn’t seem to stop a small local society of mushroom hunters, buyers and sellers who seem as much drawn by their enthusiasm for nature and the thrill of venturing into the woods as by the generous seasonal profits.
Henry Mancini can tell you all about it. An avid plant and Basidiomycetes (sub-group of the fungus kingdom) taxonomist who loves to cook, he started in the industry as a mushroom hunter years ago. He went on to run a commercial mushroom farm in Arroyo Grande for several years. Today, he helms A&M Mushrooms, one of the region’s few major dealers of wild mushrooms to the Los Angeles and San Francisco markets. Though he still does some picking himself, he is mostly involved now in collecting and shipping off the harvest delivered to him by his motley network of mushroom hunters. Those includes everything from homeless transients to local fisherman whiling away the off-season, to local hikers and hobbyists with access to private lands.
He says in a good year, when the rains come, he’ll sell 15,000 to 25,000 pounds of chanterelles, wholesaling anywhere from $6 to $22 per pound. When there is no rain, though, it’s another story. Last year was the worst he has ever seen; he and his hunters only managed to pick 800 pounds for the whole season.
Nevertheless, while chanterelles were scarce, he said he saw more mushroom varieties last year than ever before. Among the other types in the area, the porcini (the chanterelle’s counterpart “king of the woods,” which he personally enjoys barbecued with some oil and garlic) is the main draw, often bringing in $25 per pound during its short season on the Central Coast. He has also collected mushrooms with names like lion’s mane, bear’s head, milky caps, shaggy manes, blewits (one of his personal favorites), meadow mushrooms, oyster mushrooms, cauliflower mushrooms, candy caps and shaggy parasols.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” he says. Most of these varieties sound foreign to the average consumer, but Mancini says that chefs with any kind of European training will know the names and how to cook them, because in Europe, mushrooming is a widely appreciated folk art and tradition.
“Europeans are ‘mycophiles’ and Americans are ‘mycophobes,’” he says simply (with myco referring to the scientific name for fungus). Not only do we lack the tradition of hunting passed down from one generation to the next, he says, but we also lack the continuity in the mushrooms themselves. One sought-after edible mushroom species, Amanita caesarea, for instance, is completely unmistakable in Europe but grows with great variability in form and color in California. This lack of certainty can quickly get a mushroomer into hot water, given that the genus Amanita is infamous for being deadly toxic.
Dennis Sheridan, a local biologist, former professor of mycology and self-proclaimed “old hippie” who has been leading mushroom walks for at least 30 years in San Luis Obispo, says that for this reason he does what he can to reinforce mycophobia.
“I try my very, very best to scare people a lot into not going out and gathering mushrooms to eat,” he says, recalling his early, foolish days of mushroom hunting when he threw caution to the wind, and noting that one wrong bite can permanently kill your liver. Now, he encourages people to educate themselves before ever considering eating wild mushrooms.
“I still like going out hunting for them; it gets me out on my hands and knees in the woods. Sometimes I choose to catch them and eat them, but 95% of the time I just like looking at them,” Sheridan says. He leads six annual walks—with the Audubon Society, Small Wilderness Area Preservation (SWAP), SLO Botanical Garden and California Native Plant Society—helping people learn to identify and distinguish local varieties of mushrooms as well as lichens and other native plants.
With that healthy dose of caution in mind, Chef Beckett and others will nevertheless tell you that the chanterelle is one of the most easily distinguishable mushrooms, and therefore the safest one for amateurs to hunt. He even brings his four daughters with him on mushroom hunting forays. For those still leery of foraging for themselves, Mancini says there are great local retail resources. Aside from Beckett’s dishes at Linn’s, he suggests restaurants like Giuseppe’s, American Flatbread, Marisol, McPhee’s and Hoppe’s for delicious seasonal wild mushroom dishes, as well as other local hunters like Louie Mello who sell at farmers markets.
Another option, of course, is to forage for foods other than fungi. As Cal Poly professor of biology Matt Ritter, PhD, a local expert on native plants and teacher of ethnobotany, can tell you, while there may not be a tradition of mushroom hunting in California like there is in Europe, there once was a rich history of foraging carried out by the native Obispeño Chumash people.
Formerly known by the derogatory name “Digger Indians,” the people of this region, he says, were characterized by their reliance on foraging wild acorns, seeds, bulbs and berries still found in abundance today. Back in the days of Spanish settlement, digging for food may have been seen as a low art, but clearly the Spanish never tasted the fruits of the Obispeños’ foraging. Ritter teaches classes where he shows his students how to make nutrient- rich, delicious cookies from the sweet meal of acorns by leeching out their tannins in running water. He’s also tasted another Chumash favorite: blue dicks, a wildflower bulb that when roasted tastes much like sweet
In fact, after a brief talk with Ritter, you’ll never see the local countryside in quite the same way. A common plant in the area, chia (Salvia columbariae), for instance, provided a popular seed for the native people.
“The dry heads [of the flowers] are full of seeds,” Ritter says. “You can tap them into your hand and chew them up and they’re very tasty—they’re kind of nutty with undertones of mint and basil.” He also points out the Islay Cherry, Prunus ilicifolia, which he says looks like and is related to the plum or cherry, but was foraged for its seed—which the native people would grind to produce something akin to almond butter—more than for its mediocre-tasting meat.
Along the same lines, Stephen Copeland, who has run Big Sur Guides & Hiking for 40 years and who will lead the “Wild Mushroom Walk and Talk” hike at the second annual Foragers Festival on January 17–19, 2014, says he also likes to point out other non-mushroom wild food sources. He’ll show hikers redwood sorrel (a clover-like plant rich in vitamin C known to be the only food to remove fat from the blood), California sage and fennel root, for instance—especially when there is no rain and therefore no mushrooms to be found.
But rain or shine, the Foragers Festival, with its chefs’ “Fungus Face-Off” and other tasting events, promises to deliver some incredibly creative and delectable uses of locally foraged foods—like last year’s chanterelle-infused vodka martini paired with Monterey Bay Dungeness crab cake with chanterelle poblano sauté and wild mushroom saffron risotto with pecorino cheese (Mark Marron & Sherry Gladstone of Big Sur Affair Catering) or the pâté choux puff with chanterelle, Meyer lemon, lavender and honey ice cream (Carl Shadwell, Ripplewood).
And though the wild ingredients in them may have been picked by no more than a homeless pauper, the dishes are decadent enough for anyone who tastes them to feel for just a moment like a king or queen, feasting on the land’s true edible gold.
Foraged Foods in SLO County
North coast porcini: Late fall and early winter
White porcini: Spring in northern Santa Barbara County
Hen of the Woods
Coastal live oak
Canyon live oak (particularly sought-after by native tribes)
Chia (Salvia columbariae)
Islay cherry (Prunus ilicifolia)
GUIDED WALKS & EVENTS
Foragers Festival: BigSurForagersFestival.org
Big Sur Guides: BigSurGuides.com
Morro Coast Audubon Society: MorroCoastAudubon.org
California Native Plant Society: CNPS-SLO.org
Small Wilderness Area Preservation: LosOsosBaywoodPark.org/swap/
San Luis Obispo Botanical Gardens: SLOBG.org
SAMPLING OF RESTAURANTS & RETAIL
New Frontiers, SLO
Mirasol, Shell Beach
Giuseppe’s, Pismo Beach and SLO
American Flatbread, Los Alamos
The Roadhouse, Big Sur
Restaurant at Ventana Inn, Big Sur