Sonoma County abloom with mushrooms

With a slight bend of his knee, Patrick Hamilton crouches down and reaches into the woody undergrowth of the forest at Salt Point State Park north of Jenner, and picks from the ground a yellowish sponge-like mushroom.

“Start looking at the ground around you, and you’ll begin to find your mushroom eyes,” Hamilton says, presenting the mushroom, commonly referred to as the Poor Man’s Slippery Jack, to a small crowd of novice mushroom hunters.

“When you find your mushroom eyes, you’ll start seeing mushrooms everywhere,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton’s schedule has been packed. The longtime professional mushroom hunter said Sonoma County’s recent rainfall has led to explosions of mushrooms - both poisonous and edible - on drought-stricken lands throughout the county. The deluge, with seasonal totals of between 15 and 32 inches of rain, has soaked grassy hillsides, filled streams and turned lawns green, providing the ideal environment for mushrooms to grow.

“They’re everywhere right now,” Hamilton said.

And this year, mushroom hunters like Hamilton are out in full force, embarking on foraging events almost daily. The recent rains have created the best season for mushrooms in at least two years, mushroom experts said.

“Mushrooms are popping out of the ground everywhere right now, because of the storms,” said Darvin DeShazer, co-founder of the Sonoma County Mycological Association, a nonprofit specializing in mushroom education. “We’re in the height of the season.”

Now, chefs and mushroom foragers are cashing in on the bounty of the season, with mushroom-themed events springing up all over the county. Farm-to-table restaurants and wineries are featuring mushroom-centric menu offerings, private mushroom hunting expeditions are selling out and cooking classes featuring fungi are packed. Local mushroom enthusiasts say the rains came just in time to meet growing demand for wild mushrooms.

“People are actively seeking foraging experiences, and we’ve been selling out every month,” said Donna del Rey, owner of Healdsburg’s Relish Culinary Adventures, which hosts private mushroom forays, demonstration lunches and cooking classes. “Sonoma County has such a wide variety of mushrooms that grow here, and we’ve had so much rain, mixed with warm weather, that there’s been a big bloom of edible ones. It’s just fantastic.”

While foraging events like del Rey’s - which she plans on private lands - routinely sell out with a maximum of 24 people per outing, mushroom hunters are also packing the only state park that allows public picking.

Some federally-owned national parks allow the public to forage, including Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County, but of California’s 280 state-managed open spaces, Salt Point State Park is the sole park open to public foraging, DeShazer said. Mushrooms gathered there are not permitted for sale commercially, but that hasn’t stopped a steady stream of people from heading out on the hunt for fungi this winter.

Sonoma County does not allow mushroom foraging in its network of over 50 parks and trails, in part, to preserve natural resources and sensitive wildlife habitat, Sonoma County Regional Parks officials said.

Self-described foodies and mushroom enthusiasts said they’re drawn to the search because it allows them to get outside, and then there’s the added benefit of cooking up the stems and caps in their own kitchens.

“There’s something about the discovery of it, kind of like Easter egg hunts when we were children,” del Rey said. “Then there’s this beautiful free gift from the earth.”

Dozens of amateur foragers took advantage of the new crop of mushrooms on a recent day.

On Saturday, Hamilton led a small group of people up Sonoma County’s winding coastline, to the lush hillsides and rugged slopes of Salt Point - the 6,000-acre park widely believed to be the most pristine location to find fungi in the county, according to mushroom experts.

“This mushroom is an amanita, the same genus as a death cap,” said Hamilton, who is also a board member of the local mycological association. “We want to be careful with these.”

In 1997, Sam Sebastiani Jr. of the prominent Sonoma County wine family, died at 31 after eating lethal death cap mushrooms gathered during an outing in Sonoma County.

On Saturday, hunters dug up a plethora of mushrooms, with names as unconventional as their shapes. Some picked candy caps, orange-hued mushrooms with a scent of maple syrup that chefs have used in desserts. Some collected yellowfoot chanterelles, coral mushrooms and russulas. More common were black trumpets and hedgehog mushrooms.

“This is what we’re out here for,” Hamilton bellowed to the group. “Black trumpets and hedgehogs.”

“It’s crazy realizing how low you have to get to pick them,” said William Stallings, who came out to forage for the first time Saturday.

Heather Cleveland, who lives in Oakland, said she learned about the foraging event through a quick Internet search. She’d been looking for something to do for her birthday, she said.

“I know nothing about mushrooms except for what’s in my basket,” said Cleveland, who described herself as a foodie. “I’m excited, I have lots of recipes waiting for me at home.”

Evelyn and Dave Rasmussen, also first-time mushroom hunters, said they signed up for the $90 per-person event to try something new.

“I’d say we’re foodies,” said Evelyn Rasmussen, who carried a basket of black chanterelles. “This is so great; we really love mushrooms.”

You can reach Staff Writer ?Angela Hart at 526-8503 or ? On Twitter @ahartreports.

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