For most of us in Sonoma County, these first rains of fall bring a sense of relief. The gentle pitter patter of raindrops brings with it growing assurance that the worst of fire season has passed us by.
For the mycologically minded, rain also brings a sense of anticipation, as mysterious life springs anew on forest floors and flourishing fields. To them, mushrooms are an essential marker of the seasonal rhythms in Sonoma County.
One of those people is Julie Schreiber. The Healdsburg resident, trained chef and winemaker devotes a good portion of the late fall and winter months to foraging for and cooking with mushrooms.
“The first step I take into the woods is almost like going to church,” Schreiber said. “I’m so glad I’m back.”
She’ll gladly preach the gospel of fungi to anyone who’s interested. Schreiber, along with business partner David Campbell, runs Mycoventures, which is dedicated to teaching and touring in the name of mushrooms.
The foraging bug first bit Schreiber when she was working at the venerable Café Beaujolais in Mendocino and foragers would show up at the restaurant’s back door selling mushrooms. She was immediately hooked and took a class on mushroom identification at College of the Redwoods.
Now she spends the cool months of mushroom season taking others on forays to places like Salt Point State Park on the Sonoma Coast, where foraging is permitted, teaching them how to find and feast on all kinds of fabulous fungi, starting with giant porcini in the fall, followed by distinct golden-hued chanterelles, black trumpets, hedgehog and candy cap mushrooms in the winter. Finally, in early spring, the much sought-after morels appear in recently burned forests.
The four-hour tromps through the woods end with a potluck lunch and a sampling of the mushrooms foraged that morning.
Students at these forays learn about mushroom habitat, identification and their mysterious ways.
“Mushrooms are their own kingdom,” Schreiber said. “They could be there one day, and they weren’t there the day before. It’s like learning a whole new world trying to understand them.”
For instance, what we think of as a mushroom, according to Schreiber, is actually the fruit of the mushroom, which is that somewhat mystical, mycelial web under the soil that fascinates fungi fanatics.
Adding to their appeal is that, when cooked right, mushrooms are downright tasty.
Learning how to coax out all their earthy, umami goodness is part of the process in classes Schreiber teaches each winter at Relish Culinary Adventures in Healdsburg. Attendees go on a short forage at nearby Notre Vue Estate Winery, then head into the Relish kitchen to taste what they find.
“I saute maybe four or five different species, all the same way,” Schreiber said. “Then people can say, ‘Oh, the black trumpet and a chanterelle don’t taste anything alike.’ The color, the texture, the flavor — everything about them is different. But if you’re always thinking mushroom flavor is mushroom flavor, then I’ve really opened your mind to what’s possible.”
After that, they’re treated to a four-course mushroom-focused menu, starting with a creamy mushroom soup and ending with a dessert that includes candy cap mushrooms, a species that when dried, imparts a flavor similar to maple syrup.
Anytime she’s cooking for a large group, Schreiber makes sure she already has plenty of mushrooms on hand in case a foraging trip doesn’t result in enough for a crowd. One of her go-to sources is Mycopia in Sebastopol. They sell mainly to grocery stores and restaurants, but open to the public from 1-2 p.m. every Friday for bulk sales on certain varieties.
Although the species they offer are cultivated and not wild, it’s a good option for those who’d rather skip foraging and just get cooking. The mushrooms are sold in 3-pound bags for a bargain compared to grocery store prices, and the volume allows for plenty of recipe experimentation.
UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy: