After centuries of mistrust and confusion, the wild mushroom has finally entered the mainstream of the American kitchen.
Here in Wine Country, seasonal chefs routinely showcase chanterelles and matsutakes on their winter menus, while Healdsburg holds an annual Wild Mushroom Weekend each February.
"We're really lucky in Sonoma County," said Elissa Rubin-Mahon, an expert mushroomer who led a recent foraging class for Relish Culinary Adventures in Healdsburg. "It's one of the best places to mushroom on the planet."
Yes, there are mushrooms out there that can make you sick, or worse. Mushroom poisoning deaths are often linked to Amanita Phalloides, the commonly found Death Cap. But by following the rules, you can build your skills without risking your life, liver or digestive tract.
Those obsessed with the fungus find it's worthwhile to learn about where they grow and what they look like, along with the methods for bringing out their earthy, complex flavors in kitchen.
"You can enhance the flavor, but you don't want to overwhelm the flavor," Rubin-Mahon said, while cooking up a fungi feast after the forage. "Chanterelles and hedgehogs are good for soup. . . . Matsutake smells like horseradish and cinnamon, so it goes great with fish."
Hordes of wild-mushroom hunters are drawn to the North Coast each winter in search of the mysterious, underground mycelium and the strange, fruiting bodies it sends up to the surface, like gifts from the gods.
"It sends out a couple, just to check out what the weather is like," said Healdsburg chef Ari Rosen of Scopa and Campo Fina restaurants, an avid forager who grew up in Ukiah. "This year, we had some rain in October, and it was just enough to get the porcinis started on the coast."
However, the heavy rains and deep chill in December put a damper on the winter crop, including the chanterelles and hedgehogs.
"Chanterelles grow really slow," he said. "If it rains and gets cold, we don't get good mushrooms."
However, Rosen said that coastal foragers are finding a bumper crop of matsutake, a dense, woody mushroom revered by the Japanese, along with the yellowfoot and blackfoot.
During the recent Relish forage at Hoot Owl Creek Ranch above the Alexander Valley, a group of two dozen foragers carried baskets as they spread out over the oak-studded hills to search for telltale mounds on the earth.
"We want to find mushrooms, edible or not," Rubin-Mahon told the group. "Look up in the trees. Lion's mane can grow in a bowl of the tree, and oyster mushrooms can grow on dead wood."
Less than a minute passed before someone spied a small, gray mushroom that Rubin-Mahon identified as a possible inky cap. Then another person found a bright orange mushroom, possibly a witch's hat.
Although none of the mushrooms gathered that day were deemed safe to eat, two mushrooms provided a lesson in what not to eat: the coppery-capped Death Cap, Amanita Phalloides, and its edible cousin, Amanita Vaginata.
"I've found the Death Cap with edible Amanita," said Rubin-Mahon, adding that just to be safe, she never eats anything in the Amanita family.
"You should focus on beginner mushrooms that are easy to ID and flavorful," she said. "In this region, there are a dozen choices of edible mushrooms."