As part of the Mendocino Mushroom, Wine and Beer Festival, going on now through November 13, a group gathers in the cozy lobby of the Stanford Inn for a mushroom exploration talk-then-walk led by local "mycological enthusiast" Adrienne Long. Originally, the event was meant to be a foraging foray (I imagined hauling home to San Francisco bags full of chanterelles and porcini mushrooms for hearty winter stews), but alas, a permit, issued by Cal Fire, is required to hunt for fungi in Mendocino County's Jackson Demonstration State Forest.
At just $20 for one year of unlimited foraging, it's well worth the buy. Long says she's had hers for three weeks and has collected enough more than $100 worth of chanterelles. But no one in the group has a permit, so it's a look-but-don't-pick situation for us.
Long sets up a display of fresh and dried, toxic and edible, mushrooms alongside a roving library of reference texts (for the novice forager, David Arora's All That The Rain Promises and More is the perfect pocket guide). She then unleashes, almost breathlessly, her vast knowledge of mushrooms. All you can do is listen raptly and note the facts you find interesting. For example, for every edible mushroom, there is a toxic lookalike. This alone is enough to put me off foraging.
Also, did you know that mushrooms need to be cooked to release their health and medicinal properties? It's true—their proteins need to be broken down so the body can absorb them, so don't bother with those shaved raw button mushrooms at the Pizza Hut salad bar. However, eating turkey tail mushroom soup is known to provide a great immunity boost—the fungi, recognized by its wavy, multicolored bands, is a powerful antioxidant. And a tea of reishi mushrooms, the darling of alternative medicine, reportedly detoxifies the liver and fights cancer. (See tea recipe below.)
(Courtesy of Mendocino County Tourism)
Beware the claims of "organic" mushrooms such as chanterelles, reishis, or hedgehogs. They are examples of mycorrhizal fungi, which means that they have a symbiotic relationship with the roots of certain plants. Chanterelles get their nutrients from fir or hemlock, while reishis can be found close to Douglas fir trees. By nature, these mushrooms need to be wildcrafted—not knowing the extent of what goes on in the wilderness (if an orphan jug of pesticide somehow explodes in a forest, does it make a noise?), claims of "organic" are largely unfounded, so save the coin and opt for non-organic instead.
After Long tells us about a girl with leukemia who had a mushroom growing out of her nose because the poor thing had been exposed to mushroom spores and her compromised immunity just couldn't fight off the fungi, I was ready to move on to the "hunt" at the Caspar Cemetery, a bluffside graveyard with scant headstones, located at the end of a long forest path. Emerging from the leaf litter and swaths of redwood sorrel we spotted false (and indeed toxic) chanterelles, ones with thin gills on the underside rather than folds and ridges; russula mushrooms, a prolific species that's a good indicator of forest health; Lactarius delicioso, a slimy fungi that's edible, but, as Long says, "not so delicioso"; Satan's bolete, a poisonous specimen with a gorgeous, almost velvety, wine-hued underside; and Amanita muscaria, a fairytale mushroom with a spotted red cap. "The color red is like a danger signal," says Long. Whimsical mushrooms scattered among the gravestones? Loud and clear, Nature. Loud and clear.
(Courtesy of Mendocino County Tourism)
Adrienne Long's Reishi Tea recipe
1 heaping tbsp of dried reishi, cut into very small pieces or ground to a powder
3-5 cups of water depending on how much tea you want to drink.
- Bring water to boil in a stainless or ceramic pot. Do not use aluminum.
- Add reishi. Reduce heat and simmer for about 2 hours.
- Remove from heat and strain. Allow to cool as the liquid will be quite hot.
- Add to coffee, green tea, or drink alone with a little honey. Mushroom pieces can be boiled repeatedly until liquid no longer turns brown.
The tea will store for a few days in the refrigerator.
FINE PRINT: Consult your doctor before ingesting any medicinal plant or herb for the first time. Stomach upset or an allergic reaction can occur. Do not drink this tea if you are on blood-thinning medication.
There's still time to enjoy the Mendocino Mushroom, Wine, and Beer Festival. From now until November 13, you can:
- Book a mushroom exploration tour with Adrienne Long. // Stanford Inn, Coast Hwy & Comptche-Ukiah Rd. (Mendocino), stanfordinn.com
- Attend a lecture and book signing by Noah Siegel, author of Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast. // Nov. 10, 6pm, Saint Anthony's Hall, 10700 Lansing St. (Mendocino)
- Reserve a spot at the Wild Fish Winemaker dinner. This intimate spot, aglow with candlelight, focuses on fish that's been wild-caught off the Mendocino coast. We don't know what's on the menu for this event (it depends on what's reeled in that day), but you'll be lucky to try the freshest oysters served with a bracing mignonette, a downright succulent cedar-plank roasted cod, and a rich butter-basted sable fish. On our visit, local chanterelles and porcinis were sautéed and served atop a swipe of creamy celeriac puree. For this dinner, all courses will be paired with Yorkville Cellars wines. // Nov. 10, 6:30pm, Wild Fish, 7750 Hwy. 1 (Little River), wild-fish.com for reservations.
- Take a mushroom cooking class and foraging foray at Assagiare Mendocino. Dishes will be paired with Mendo wines and ciders. // 17451 Jade Ct. (Fort Bragg), assagiare.com for reservations.
- Go to the Stanford Inn's Ravens Restaurant Medicinal Mushroom Breakfast. Bonus, it's a vegan feast. // Coast Hwy. & Comptche-Ukiah Rd. (Mendocino), ravensrestaurant.com for reservations.
The Albion River Inn has nice bluffside cottages with spectacular coastline views and—gasp!—no televisions. Not to worry, the dramatic coastline is all the entertainment you'll need. Breakfast included. // 3790 N. Hwy 1 (Albion), albionriverinn.com
GPS is scantly available in the wilds of Mendocino, so make sure you've got a map handy. Any way you spin it, bank on a 2.5-hour drive from San Francisco to the coast via Hwy. 101 & Hwy. 128. (Boonville makes a good rest stop. Eat a homemade fruit paleta from Paysanne or stretch your legs browsing the well-curated Farmhouse Mercantile, which stocks, among other stylish domestications, striped Turkish hammam towels, Mohinders artisan sandals, local Lovers Lane honey, and cute walnut- or almond-shaped erasers.)