Yet there I was in the heart of winter, tramping happily through the dense trees and underbrush at the top of a remote mountain in Fort Ross, a new companion to a man I’d just met at Timber Cove Inn on the Sonoma Coast an hour ago. He had told me of something called “candy cap,” and promised he could lead me to the magical stuff.
OK. I should point out that I was with a dozen other people, the man was renowned mycologist David Arora, and he was leading our merry band on a mushroom appreciation trip through the forest surrounding Fort Ross Vineyard.
The candy cap is a type of mushroom, favored by chefs because it tastes a bit like maple syrup, and we were all out prancing in the rain in search of fungi to be prepared for dinner that night by the Inn’s chef Ben St. Clair.
Quick summary of what I learned: Some 3,000 types of fungi thrive in the North Coast area through the September through May season. Yet, because only about 500 kinds are safely edible, and perhaps only 50 taste good, it’s much better to leave the hunting to the experts who can tell the difference between candy cap and the aptly named death caps.
Thank goodness, too, that chef St. Clair wasn’t really relying on us for his ingredients, because as Arora dug through our harvest later that day, sifting hundreds of mushrooms we proudly dumped out for him on a table while sipping Pinot Noir at the Fort Ross Winery tasting room, he found perhaps a dozen that we could actually eat.
Mushrooms are one of the great joys of winter at the Sonoma Coast, so beautiful in their rainbow colors. We had filled our baskets with remarkable variety, as Arora poked under mossy logs and shared with us the wisdom of that led him to write “All That the Rain Promises and More …” plus “Mushrooms Demystified,” and teach about wild mushrooms since the early 1970s.
Truffles aren’t mushrooms, he explained, since they grow underground and are “dependent on animals finding them, eating them, and passing along the spores.” Besides, we were here to look at trees first, he insisted, since mushrooms often can be identified by their hosting plant. Delicious porcini like pines, while deadly fungi favor live oaks, he explained.
Instead, we had lots of the prettily-named and tasteless Plum & Custards, Shrimp Russulas that actually smelled like seafood, Bleeding Milkcaps, and delicate puff balls that burst with spores when touched.
There were white chanterelles, Elfin Saddles, something called Witches’ Butter and looked like fluttery jellyfish, and, I’m not making this up, a Hideous Gomphidius.
It was obvious to him, but certainly not to me, as Arora noted the differences on several identical-looking mushrooms as “some with sponge, some with gills, some with veils, some with stripes” but they were all, well, brown.
Mushrooms are superb to stuff in ravioli, plop on pizza, stock in stews, and roast with lovely meats, whether they porcini, chanterelles, morels, clamshells, hedgehogs, or Portobellos. This I knew.
Mushroom hunting is an exacting (if C.Y.A.) science, I decided, as again and again, Arora decreed that a mushroom I had so proudly found was “undetermined edible” and therefore better not risked.
Much better for an amateur like me to forage in the produce bins at Oliver’s, G&G or Pacific Markets.
Pick Your Foraging Partner
- The Timber Cove “Forage for Fungi” adventure may become a regular offering, given that Arora found a little treasure trove of edible mushrooms right on hotel grounds. Check timbercoveinn.com for availability.
- Intrepid gatherers can also contact David Arora for private/group hunts, at davidarora.com.
- The Sonoma County Mycological Association (SOMA, somamushrooms.org) hosts monthly mushroom field trips to collect wild mushrooms with knowledgeable fungi folk like Charmoon Richardson and David Campbell of Wild About Mushrooms (wildaboutmushrooms.net) in Forestville.
Try this sumptuous recipe from Timber Cove Inn’s chef Ben St. Clair.
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
Yield: Serves 4
- 6 tablespoons butter, divided
- 1/4 cup finely chopped onion
- 3 oz finely chopped red bell pepper
- 3 oz yellow bell pepper
- 1 green onion, finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons fresh chopped parsley
- 1-1/2 cups sliced wild mushrooms
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1-1/2 cups milk
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 1 teaspoon salt
- dash pepper
- dash ground nutmeg
- dash cayenne pepper
- 1-1/2 cups cooked crabmeat
- 2 tablespoons dry sherry
In a heavy skillet, heat 4 tablespoons of butter. Add the onion, green pepper, and mushrooms. Sauté until onions are softened. Add the green onion and parsley and continue cooking for 2 minutes longer. Set aside.
In a medium saucepan, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter over medium heat. Stir in the flour until smooth; gradually stir in the milk. Add salt, pepper, nutmeg, and cayenne.
Cook, stirring, until thickened. Add the sautéed vegetables and half-and-half or light cream, and cook, stirring, until hot and bubbly. Stir in the cooked crabmeat and simmer for 5 minutes. Stir in the sherry just before serving.