Tuesday, January 25, 2011

To forage or. . . NOT to forage

Some dear friends of mine took me on my first food foraging adventure event just before Christmas. You can imagine my excitement - here in Northern California, the epicenter of the local food movement, finding and harvesting your own food is practically the core of culinary truth.

The mission was to harvest large California golden chanterelles - bright precious gems that grow slowly, appearing in the winter months at the foot of oak groves situated at a precise altitude in Northern California. We were searching for the Queen of the Forest, mycological treasure. Visions of idyllic strolls through forest meadows and the rush of finding pristine bundles of golden mushrooms filled my head.

And so we ventured East, over the Bay Bridge and into the far lands past Berkeley. To a San Francisco city girl, we were in lush green hinterlands that further added to the mystique of our purpose. "There be dragons" (or at least, great wild harvests) the signs may as well have said. And we arrived at our destination, which shall remain nameless to preserve this secret mushroom spot for those who so kindly shared it with us that day. Suffice to say, no beaten path can lead you there.

The reality, I must say, was something else entirely. Mushrooms, it turns out, grow in some of the least convenient habitats possible. There were indeed lush green meadows and beautiful live oak tree groves. But to get to them required wading through mud pits and rifling through musty detritus and slimy earth. At points, the paths we chose were so harrowing our shoes, already caked in mud, slipped down treacherous ravines and river beds, threatening to dump us and what few mushrooms we had gathered 30 feet below.

And yet on our group pushed, ever motivated by the prospect of finding a bundle of golden eggs (or mushrooms, as it were). And when you finally spot those deep yellow-orange ears, sprouting from the ground between an age-old oak tree's roots, it's like a drug-induced high. Adrenaline pumps, you dash over and cut them from the ground before others can reach them. And when you find one, there are generally more in the area. Remember that childhood excitement over treasure hunts? It's the same feeling, for adults.

I'm glad I had the experience. But I must admit, there is still something less than glorious about hauling 7 lbs of fungus home only to remove another 2 lbs of caked dirt and decay before you can eat them. There may be an earthworm or small lizard or two, too. And because you can't wash these mushrooms - they become too water logged - prepare yourself for a bit of unpleasant silt in the cooked product. Yuck. Still, if you enjoy mushrooms - rejoice. With the giant haul you'll likely bring home, you'll be eating mushrooms for days. And days.

I'll say the un-sayable: wild harvesting was a great experience. But I would far prefer getting served perfectly cleaned, beautifully prepared chanterelles on a restaurant plate any day. The process of locating, cleaning and cooking this rather dirt-ridden produce is a turn-off. If this makes me a less hardcore foodie, that's fine. They can keep the dirt and earthworms.

Two hours after coming home with our loot, Zack and I stepped into Bi Rite Market and saw a beautiful, pristine bunch of Golden Chanterelles. Selling price: $35/lb. Our day's mushroom haul was worth $250 to someone . . .

So enjoy the trekking and mushroom hunting - but selling your hard-won treasures may be a better post-harvesting option!