Skinny Girls Roadshow from Sonoma — Hunting the Pine Mushroom

I like the thrill of the hunt. But not one for killing animals or dealing with blood, I mostly limit my hunting to wild mushrooms in the woods and groovy cowboy shirts at thrift stores. It was the former that had my wife and I up to our ears in Sonoma pine duff, hunting the elusive matsutake.

Orange jelly fungus

Orange jelly fungus

“Matsutake” translates as “pine mushroom,” since they often grow in symbiotic relationship with pines. “Take” is Japanese for mushroom, while “matsu” means pine — I have a friend named Kazue Matsunaga. I’m not sure what the “naga” part is, but she’s got something to do with pine trees. She’s a “Pine naga-er,” I guess.

Anyway, back to the matsutake. Each year we load the kids up in the car and make our annual holiday trip to Sonoma County to visit my mother, who lives on five acres of forest, surrounded by a few thousand more acres of forest. Besides drinking lots of good wine and opening presents and the kids getting to make cookies with their grandmother, a highlight of the trip — for me at least — is hunting for mushrooms.

Bright violet blewits

Bright violet blewits

Every other year we go up around Thanksgiving, and I look for porcini and chanterelles and a few other varieties which grow at that time. The years we travel north closer to Christmas, it’s mostly the matsutake I’m looking for. It’s probably my favorite mushroom, one the Japanese in scarce years will pay hundreds of dollars a pound for. And it often grows right up the back hill from my mom’s house.

Armed with pocket knives, two grocery bags and a bit of optimism, we donned our jackets and took advantage of a break in the rain to set out on the hunt. It didn’t take long to spot our first mushroom — a slimy little number called “hideous gomphideous,” which despite its unappealing name is actually edible. But we left it where it was growing and continued on. We had bigger game to find. We spotted a few candy caps, one of the very best mushrooms with a fragrance like maple syrup. But they’re so small you must collect hundreds to even influence a pasta, so we moved on. Our first prize was a comb tooth mushroom, identified as a “choice edible” in the mushroom field guides, growing in a large clump on a fallen log.

The comb tooth mushroom

The comb tooth mushroom

The day was shaping up nicely, especially when we began to spot the telltale “shrumps” — shroom + hump — surging up from beneath the leaves. Brushing away the duff, there it was — our first matsutake of the day. And it would not be the last. For the following hour, we moved slowly up the hill, unearthing cluster after cluster of this prized mushroom. We’d hit our timing just right — some years we find only a button or two, arriving too early; while other years, we’ll find soggy, mushy mushrooms having gotten there a week or two too late. The mushrooms come up according to their own schedule; you never know what you’re going to get.

On the way back down the hill, our bags filled with easily 15 pounds of matsutake, we discovered three large blewits — one of the most beautiful mushrooms, a bright deep purple with lovely brown gills — and also one of the tastiest.

I left mushrooms with my mom, gave some to my sister, and still would head home with almost more than I could use. I will cook them in a Christmas eve gratin, put some in a Christmas dinner risotto, save some for my annual New Year’s Eve dinner, and have yet more to torment my children with in various dishes well into 2013.

If you’re in the neighborhood, pop by and I’ll give you a few, too. Here’s a nice wintery soup to make with whichever mushrooms you may have. Enjoy!

*   *   *

Wild mushroom bisque
serves 4-6

2 lbs. wild mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
1 white onion, thinly sliced
1 tbsp. butter
2 quarts homemade chicken stock
1 cup cream
1 tsp. fresh thyme leaves
salt & pepper to taste

Heat the tablespoon of butter over medium high heat in a large pan. Fry the onions until translucent. Add mushrooms and sauté for 10 minutes or so, until the mushrooms have released most of their liquid and are turning golden.

Remove about 1/4 cup of the mushrooms, chop and set aside. Place remaining mushrooms and onions in a large saucepan with chicken stock. (Use a little chicken stock to deglaze your original pan, and pour deglazing liquid into soup.) Bring soup to a simmer over medium high heat. Reduce heat to medium low and cook for 30 minutes, uncovered. Let the soup cool to room temperature. With a sieve, skimmer or slotted spoon, remove solids from soup and place them in a blender. Add half the soup stock. Puree until smooth.

Return puree to pot with soup and return to stove over medium heat. Add cream, chopped mushrooms and thyme leaves, and cook until beginning to simmer, about 5 minutes. Adjust seasoning to taste, and serve soup with crusty bread and butter.

10 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Lisa
    Dec 25, 2012 @ 02:25:06

    VERY COOL! Hoped you would have success!!!

    I saw a bunch even on the side of the road when I was there so thought maybe….


  2. rachelocal
    Dec 25, 2012 @ 04:51:36

    Looks like fun! Happy Holidays to you and yours!


  3. pal-O
    Dec 25, 2012 @ 18:28:20

    Merry Christmas Mushroom Master! I think I am going to get a Field Guide to FLA mushrooms as we seem to have millions all over the place & I am unsure which are edible. Best to all of you this season. Happy New Year!!!


  4. Jessamine in PDX
    Dec 27, 2012 @ 07:12:19

    That comb tooth mushroom is crazy looking! What a great thing to discover on a holiday foraging hike. Sounds like you had good luck on your side this year!


  5. glennis
    Dec 27, 2012 @ 22:45:47

    Will you have any when we come back from London? We’ll bring, in exchange, lots of weird British candy!


    • scolgin
      Dec 27, 2012 @ 22:57:35

      Weird British candy — that does sound tempting! There must be something I’d like you to bring me back… let’s see… haggis? No, wait, that’s Scotland. I know — good draft beer!!! Well, probably doesn’t travel well. You could bring me back some interesting flavors of Walker’s potato crisps (“chips” to you and I) — steak, cheese & onion, etc.

      Yeah, I’d love to give you some mushrooms, when do you get back? They should last until the new year…


  6. Claudia from Idiot's Kitchen
    Jan 01, 2013 @ 16:13:15

    Just popped over from Doves Today….you had me with the big mushroom hunt and sealed the deal with the recipe!


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