by Heather Irwin
FREESTONE--It’s hard not to think a lot about mushrooms right now. Everything underfoot has been squish-squishing for what seems like weeks now, making a happy home for fungi of just about every shape and hue. Beneath leaves, on the sides of bare trees and popping up like perfect little gnome-homes on my lawn, they’re everywhere.
But unlike the many local mushroom hunters, eating anything growing in my yard or found in the woods is something I’d have to think long and hard about doing. I simply don’t know the good stuff from the bad—and unlike nibbling a nasturtium leaf or grabbing a handful of wild blackberries, mushrooms aren’t something to mess with.
Here in Sonoma County, however, there are literally hundreds of varieties of mushrooms, many edible—some not—that can be found in the woods and meadows throughout the county. There are probably equal, if not greater numbers of amateur mycologists (mushroom enthusiasts) who congregate in great numbers this time of year for something called Mushroom Camp. Last Sunday, I stopped by Charmoon Richardson’s to see what all the hubbub was about.
For weeks, foodie friends had been salivating over the upcoming gathering of mushroom folks who forage, collect, sort, eat and talk (and talk, and talk and talk) about little else but local mushrooms for three full days. I figured if nothing else, I'd learn a thing or two about all the odd little fungi threatening to creep into my house.
We stumbled into Camp, located this year at the CYO Camp near Freestone, mid-day on an overcast, cool, slightly damp day: ideal conditions for ‘shroomers. They were everywhere, congregated around tables listening to discussions on how to pick, where to pick, how to identify and how to cook mushrooms. Downstairs, however, was the real mushroom booty. Overflowing from a small room, and onto benches outside were dozens of paper plates, each with a single species of mushroom. Marked with the scientific name, the plates held every size and shape of mushroom imaginable: red, brown, grey and white. There were some that were larger than a fist, and others the size of a large crumb. Covered in dirt and moss, the small room that held most of the prized discoveries (all were found on the several acres at the CYO) was earthy and funky with the smell of wet, dank mushrooms—the smell of sweet success to triumphant mushroom hunters.
For more info on the Sonoma Mycological Association, and Mushroom Camp, contact http://somamushrooms.org/.
Stores like Whole Foods and Olivers (in Santa Rosa) are carrying a huge selection of exotic mushrooms right now…from oyster and porcini to wood ear and shitake. Many come from local commercial mushroom purveyors in Petaluma and Mendocino, so look first for local. A fun way to try an exotic blend are with the Chef’s Packs (about $7) that include three to four kinds of mushrooms that can be used in a great mushroom soup or mushroom risotto.
If you can’t buy fresh, local mushrooms, you can buy dried ones locally at West County Dried Mushrooms or from purveyors like Far West Fungi (at San Francisco’s Ferry Building).