I have recently become aware of a sub-culture that exists in the ever growing world of food lovers. The people that exist in this culture are passionate, determined, generous, adventurous, tough, gentle and secretive. They are at times self-less and giving and conversely elusive and greedy. For the mushroom hunter, finding the perfect specimen is the ultimate priority but to share their find and to introduce one to the often secretive world of the forager – well, they are just too darn excited and in love with the fungi not to.
Angelo Pellegrini defines mushroom hunters as such; “He hunts only at the crack of dawn and wears his shirt inside out. To ask why is to ask why fire burns. His credo may be stated thus: he has sworn an oath to keep his mushroom patches secret and to find and to poach on the patches of other hunters. When mushrooms are the prize, the scope of all his aspirations is narrowed to these two goals. Though in all else he may be as saintly as St. Francis, in the pursuit of these ends he is more satanic than satan. He will betray his nearest and dearest without the slightest twitch of flesh or spirit. He is amoral.”
While I have yet to find the answer as to why they wear their shirts inside out, I can now understand this definition to be quite comical in its honest and nearly perfect portrayal of those who tirelessly seek out mushrooms. After spending an unforgettable day with three foragers I would never use the word “satanic” to describe them. It might have been that they were simply guarding me from that aspect seeing that it was my first time out but on this day they were all saints.
I will say however, that I fear if I were to give too many descriptors regarding the location of our finds you may never hear from me again. So I shall choose my words wisely.
Our day of foraging happened a couple of weeks ago while the sun was still warm and the heirloom Brandywine Tomatoes plucked from Jon and Kate’s garden prior to leaving, were at their peak. The English language lacks the words to describe the honor and privilege I felt to be a part of this expedition. A permanent grin painted my face as I spent the day with Kate McDermott (the queen of pie), Jon Rowley (contributing editor for Gourmet Magazine, Pellegrini award recipient, James Beard award-winning food consultant) and Langdon Cook (author of the recently published book, “Fat of the Land” and the blog by the same title).
There were jokes of blindfolding me on our drive and confiscating my iPhone so I would be unable to plug in the GPS coordinates of our location but I was too enthralled in the conversation and the idea of seeking the woods for our next meal to pay attention to where we were going.
We arrived at our first location, slowing the car down for our initial hunt. The well-trained eyes of my companions spotted several varieties from the comfort of their seats and quickly determined that this spot was to their liking. As an eager child combs the sand in search of beach glass my eyes scanned the forest floor in search of anything resembling a mushroom. Even though I studied the mushroom manual in the backseat on our long voyage I was completely clueless as to what was fit to eat and what would cause hallucinations similar to what Alice felt as she followed the tardy rabbit.
Years of experience and education taught my fellow hunters what to look for and what to avoid as they continually answered my calls of “what about this one?” and “what’s this? Can I eat it?”
Our team began to separate in the midst of the trees, each on our own mission to be the hunter awarded the honor of the “first find of the day”.
It didn’t take long for us to notice Jon carefully cradling several specimen. With great excitement we rushed over to see what our fellow hunter had found. We gathered round like a bunch of school kids to see what Jon had brought to show-and-tell. He proudly described his find and as he was doing so I inhaled a pungent flavor of woods and meaty, aromatic mushrooms.
Langdon taught me the clever way to decipher the Matsutake variety. “Red hots and wet socks”. Sure enough one deep inhale through my nose and I quickly understood how this phrase was coined. While we associate the smell of apple cider, cinnamon and roasted squash as the pronouncement of Fall, in Japan it is the distinctive aroma of the Matsutake that rings in Autumn.
We continued our day hoping from one “hot spot” to the next. While Jon and Langdon had their intuitive mushroom seeking sensors tuned in Kate and I continually brought our conversations back to the joys of pie. The car would stop at a new location and we would all pile out with much anticipation as to what we could find in the dirt.
This would be the first time that I’ve seen Matsutake, Porcini, Lobster and Chanterelles outside of the market. Combine that thrill with the joy on Jon’s face each time we spotted a mushroom, the taste of Kate’s pies eaten in the woods, simple sandwiches of fresh baked bread and tomatoes bursting with their own juices sliced with a leatherman in the trunk of a car, the crisp air cutting through the warmth of the sun, learning from the wisdom of experienced foragers such as Jon and Langdon and of course the immeasurable pride and excitement I felt when I spotted my first unguided find – a bountiful pile of Chanterelles – I’m hooked.
In all honesty, my lust for mushrooms is a recent development. As a child I would meticulously peel them off my pizza, remove them from strogonoff and avoid them in stews. I still get slightly squeamish at the texture but can greatly appreciate the depth they lend to many of my dishes. But it wasn’t until taking the proper actions in order to seek out the mushroom rather than simply grabbing them from the store that I was able to truly appreciate fungi.
On a recent trip to San Francisco I stood in awe in front of a mushroom purveyor at the Ferry Building. I stared at the Chanterelles and imagined each one in its original environment. I noticed how clean they were and thought about the care taken to gently brush away each spot of dirt so as not to spoil the rest of the batch. I imagined the hunters in the early morning fog heading out to their “spot” in search of their treasure.
I have to come to honor the mushroom not just for its unmistakable flavor that it imparts but because I now understand it much better (with infinitely more to learn). I have discovered where they come from, the care taken to properly find the best variety and the work needed in order for them to be a part of my dinner.
The more I come to learn about food the more I fall deeper in love with it. Good food is both simple and incredibly complex. The good news for us is that if we choose to select and seek out “good food” – food that is seasonal, often local and grown with skill and passion – then much of the work is done for us and it’s quite easy to convert that food into an unforgettably delicious meal.
The complexity comes from how our food was created, how it was grown, who knew when it was the precise time to pluck the fruit from its branches and who took the time to create the perfect soil conditions to attain the proper sweetness.
This complexity is beyond my comprehension. Much of it is driven by the passion of farmers who care enough about good food to unravel some of these complexities in order for us to enjoy a meal that causes us to moan in joy and acknowledgment of a job well done.
Sometimes the intricacy of good food is created for us, as is the case of the mushroom. Our job is to know and understand the many varieties and then seek them out. But they are there, for us to enjoy, savor and consume with great pleasure – for this and many other reasons I believe there is a God because good Lord these mushrooms were good!
Phew. After all that hunting, foraging and thinking – I dried my porcini and sauteed my Chanterelles in butter, salt/pepper and white wine – ate some then froze the rest so that I can, at another time, relive this day that I will never forget.