The Wonders of the Woods

Clockwise from top: Blewits, matsutakes, white chanterelles, porcini

Every year, somewhere around the holidays, we load up the car with kids and kid paraphernalia and head north. Our destination? Over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house — my mom’s place — in the forest of western Sonoma County. We get settled, my kids go for the cookies, and then Dad disappears. Into the wet woods, eyes scanning the shadowy duff for signs of life. Fungal life.

I first got interested in foraging for mushrooms two decades ago, while up at my aunt and uncle’s place in Mendocino. It took five years of identification before I became comfortable eating a mushroom, another five before anyone in my family would trust me enough to eat one. Now, 20 years out, I’m something of an expert. In that time, I’ve only gotten sick once. And that from an edible variety. I’ve never eaten a poisonous mushroom. I find mushrooms people pay top dollar for at fancy food boutiques and farmers markets — matsutake, oyster, porcini, black trumpets… And soon, after the torrential rains we’ve been having in L.A., I’ll see chanterelles the size of baseball gloves popping up in the usually dry woods around my own house.

My kids seem to like my hobby. It combines getting dirty and exploring, two of the best kid things:

Do I advise you take up this pastime? No. And if you must, come out with me and I’ll share my knowledge. I’ve had two people send me emails in the past week with photos of the “chanterelles” they’d found, eagerly waiting confirmation to eat their bounty. My reply in both cases was the same. “Those are NOT chanterelles.”

Once initiated, you may find yourself obsessed. For some, like my wife, it is the thrill of the hunt. She compares it to going to garage sales looking for that one great find. For others, it is the awesome diversity of edible wild mushrooms — some that have the texture and taste of fried chicken, others that smell of maple syrup; some that can substitute for lobster in a bisque, and still others that resemble the mane of a lion. I like the hunt, and I like the cooking. And when it’s dry at home and I can’t get north, I suck it up and buy them from my friends at the farmers market who do the work for me. (Sources for wild mushrooms below)

If you like regular mushrooms,  you’ll love wild mushrooms. Even cultivated varieties such as shitake, oyster or shimeji offer an adventure from the ordinary button. But look for some of the varieties I’ve mentioned above, as well as morels, yellow foot, blewits, cauliflower mushrooms and other varieties, at your farmers markets and fancy food boutiques. And when you find them, use them wherever you would regular mushrooms. In a pasta, on a pizza, folded into omelets… If it’s a cold night and you’re wet from the hunt, here’s a nice soup to warm your soul:

Wild Mushroom Bisque

1 lb wild mushrooms (or regular button mushrooms, if you must), sliced thin
2 quarts chicken stock (canned is fine — in fact, water a bouillon cube is fine)
1 onion, chopped
2 tbsp. butter
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
salt & pepper

Melt the butter over medium heat in a large saucepan. Add the onions and sweat, cooking until they begin to brown slightly. Add mushrooms and turn heat to high. Cook, stirring frequently, until mushrooms release most of their moisture and begin to brown. Add chicken stock, cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool for 30 minutes uncovered.

Transfer soup to a blender. (If there’s too much liquid for your blender, transfer all the solids and half the broth.) Puree on high for a minute, until soup is thoroughly pureed. Return to saucepan, heat over medium until soup begins to simmer. Turn off heat and stir in cream, plus salt and pepper to taste.

Serve with a loaf of crusty bread and some sweet butter, maybe a sweetish white wine like viogner, a fruity zinfandel or a bottle of hoppy beer such as Sierra Nevada or Anchor Steam.

Wild mushroom sources:

Far West Fungi
The Ferry Building
San Francisco

David West/Clearwater Farms
Downtown Santa Monica Farmer’s Market
Wednesdays & Saturdays


Or if you wanna get in touch with me in mid-January, I should have more chanterelles than I know what to do with.  : )   –S

6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Suzanna
    Dec 26, 2010 @ 18:12:56

    I am reserving my chanterelles now, please!


  2. Debbie Maloney
    Dec 26, 2010 @ 22:07:45

    thanks for the recipe – making it tonight (with the boring buttons).


  3. Andrea Thompson
    Dec 27, 2010 @ 05:10:52

    This was adorable with the kids in the woods. Thanks for the great mushroom tips and recipes!!


  4. g
    Dec 29, 2010 @ 19:48:05

    As – no doubt – one of the photographic offenders, I stand chastened. I’ll “pick” them only with my camera.

    It is still a thrill, though to adjust your eyes to suddenly see the mushrooms amid the dried leaves and stuff on the floor of the woods. I’ll take you up on the offer to go foraging with you.


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