Tuesday, December 29, 2009

My Most Memorable Mushroom Hunt

I had to turn back. The already-overgrown remnant of a road I had been climbing was becoming more impassable and I was getting this sketchy feeling deep in my bones. I was already nervous. Maybe some dealer/grower was going to emerge from the side woods, shotgun in hand, demanding to know what the hell I was doing on his land. So I started walking back down when I saw one - Dr. Snow had showed me a similar pine tree only hours ago, and told me that when hunting Matsutake, what you're really hunting is this tree. I lifted one of the green, low hanging branches up and there they were - three gorgeous, white-cinnamon mushrooms in a bulge of dirt and pine needles, about two feet from the trunk. My heart was racing. No way. Is this why I had come up here in the first place?! I pulled one of the white giants to my nose - it's unmistakable.

I love hunting mushrooms, and I love the forest. I became interested in mushrooms for the same reason any curious college kid might. The dream of finding a raw, natural magic led me and my willing compadres on too many four am drives out east of Austin. We'd jump short fences off remote country roads and scamper around in the dew, staring into piles of cow manure as the sun came up. After around twenty minutes we'd start yawning with boredom and fatigue, and that was that. I never did find the famed psilocybin cubensis of Texas.

Then I got into cooking. Cooks are like car-loving gearheads when it comes to ingredients. A cook who doesn't want to taste everything the world has to offer is merely a preparer of food. When I made my first wild mushroom dish, chicken with black trumpet mushrooms in veloute sauce, I jumped into the game. I started buying all sorts of dried mushrooms, and fortunately this was about the time that bulk bins started appearing in Texas grocery stores. My selections included porcini, black trumpets, and morels. I remember the time I got ahold of a fresh, black truffle while working in Lupin's kitchen. The chef was too busy doing blow to notice one little missing nugget, so when I got home that night I made up some soft-scrambled eggs and shaved the little gem on top. I was totally underwhelmed. I had come to love the deep, rich, dark earthy flavor of wild mushrooms, and truffles are something else entirely.

Since we moved to California three years ago, I've been making frequent pit-stops down at the Ferry Building store to check on what's in season. I've purchased rare blue chantrelles, queen boletes, perfect morels, and many more thanks to Far West Fungi and Ian. Angela and I have even rented zipcars a time or two to drive out of town for some "hiking" in the forest. Honestly though, on some of our hikes I tend to become a single-minded human radar, scouring the ground for shrooms, and I'm lucky and grateful that Angela is tolerant, supportive, and now also a converted fungiphile.

After meeting local legend Eric Schramm during our last visit, I decided to call him before this trip to see if I might get some info about what the mushroom forecast was, or maybe see about finding a guide or something. He very kindly called me back, and said he could only talk for 30 seconds because things were "fucking crazy up here", but managed to get me a phone number for Dr. Ryane Snow, who we'd read about. I called him up and voila, he had a slot open and we were set for a after-breakfast trip for 10am on Dec. 27th.

Not only did I meet and get to walk with this living legend of American mushrooming, but Dr. Snow is a cool, humble, honest, and brazen hero. He exudes the kind of confidence that comes from knowledgable self-reliability - and he is excited and willing to share what he's discovered from information on medicinal plants, seaweed, trees, botany, to right-brain expansion and thinking visually. We hiked for about three and a half hours in gorgeous, lush, public forestland, picking loads of hedgehogs, candy caps, yellowfoot chantrelles, pig's ears, and a few others. Dr. Snow told me all their names in Latin, helped me learn how to distinguish one from another, and shared my excitement when we came into a particularly abundant patch. We even sampled a russula that was spicy. It would not no exagerration to say that I was completely in HOG HEAVEN =)

We searched low and low for some end-of-the-season matsutakes but alas, had no luck. I had mentioned before our walk that I'd never eaten a matsutake but would like to, and Dr. Snow assured me that they were delicious and special (he affectionately calls them "Matsies"). Lucky for me, Snow was kind and generous enough to give me one to take home from his personal stash, so that I might experience this culinary oddity and magnificence. When he dropped me off at the Stanford Inn, I was grinning from ear to ear.

The Stanford Inn serves an all vegetarian menu, but that does not include lunch - if it had, I would have sat down to eat in bliss. I knew Angela wouldn't be there to pick me up for at least two hours. At first I just wandered around the grounds to acquiesce my hunger - the place is amazing, with lush gardens, and beautiful buildings. But I am addicted - even Dr. Snow pointed this out to me on our walk in case I didn't know already - and within 30 minutes I was stalking the nearby hillside, but still within the cellphone coverage provided by the Stanford, in case Angela called. Initially I came across a lot of russulas and amanitas, but after twenty minutes I'd found two lovely, golden chantrelles. After an hour I had a few more chantrelles, plus a couple of huge hedgehogs. My ankles were starting to become loose and weak from clinging to the steep hillside. At the hour and a half mark I came across that pine tree and those three matsutakes on my own. I was truly fortunate to have that one in my bag from Dr. Snow, to aid in my identification, but the smell of a matsutake is truly telltale, and now I will never forget it.