“Promise me you won’t eat anything,” my friend pleads.
I stayed silent and mumbled something about having “paid good money for this.” But I admit, I was having second thoughts. Everyone I know had this response when we said we were going on a hike to learn to identify edible wild mushrooms here in Northern California. Everyone seemed to know a friend of a friend (of a friend) of who had died of liver failure after ingesting a pinky-nail size piece of a toxic fungus.
The mushroom foraging course I took was sponsored by ForageSF, an organization based in San Francisco whose mission is to “rediscover a forgotten food system and reduce carbon miles while helping to build a local food economy based on a true respect for the skills of our rural neighbors.” I care about this mission and I’ve followed the organization for several years. They hold a series of what they call “Wild Food Walks” to teach wild mushroom identification in Northern California forests. Winter is the best time to go mushroom foraging in California because the seasonal rain helps the wild mushroom harvest.
Born to Forage
I’d found wild mushrooms alluring ever since I was a kid. My grandfather foraged mushrooms in the forests of Western Pennsylvania. I remember finding his mushroom field guides (along with other books on his other odd interests, like taxidermy and antique bottle collecting) in the basement and admiring the strange shapes in the hand drawn illustrations. He also used to grow mushrooms himself on a rotting log he kept in the basement. I never recall actually foraging with him and my interest faded as I became a teenager. It wasn’t until a few years ago that people started to grow interested in traditional foods and I heard about ForageSF’s edible wild mushroom identification courses that I remembered this experience.
The hike took place in a forest in northern Sonoma County. The night before, we spent the night in the Sebastopol (our first–fantastic!–experience renting a room using AirBNB), and drove up that morning for two hours, winding along the beautiful and rugged coast.
Fear and Loathing
When we arrived at the designated meeting site (a picnic area in a state park), we were joined by about 10 other students, and our instructor, Kevin Feinstein. During the week, Feinstein is a school garden instructor and naturalist who has been studying wild plants for several years. He started the hike with a lengthy discussion of poisonous mushrooms and the difficulty identifying some deadly mushrooms that even seasoned mushroom hunters can make mistakes (quote: “there are old mushroom hunters, and there are brave mushroom hunters, but there are no old, brave mushroom hunters!”). He assured us that he is extremely conservative in the things he chooses to eat, and will be even more cautious in what he would allow us to take.
We learned that most mushroom poisoning deaths in the United States occur among Southeast Asian immigrants from Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. They mistake the deadly but common “Death Cap” for an edible mushroom, nearly identical in appearance, that is commonly found in their home countries. Because the Death Cap does not exist in Southeast Asia, immigrants from that region eat the toxic fungus, unaware of the risk that they face.
Feinstein said that you can eliminate the vast majority of potentially dangerous mushrooms by not taking any typical round-topped mushrooms with gills (similar in appearance to the white button mushrooms and portabella varieties we are accustomed to finding in the grocery store). All of the common edible mushrooms we would find look vastly different. There are edible, gilled mushrooms available in the wild, but they are harder for amateurs to differentiate).
That all sounded great, but I still wasn’t convinced. By the end of his talk, Kevin and I had sworn off eating any mushrooms at all, deciding we were along for the hike and to learn a few things about the forest ecosystem.
What We Found
It has been an extremely dry winter in California, and mushrooms need moist soil to thrive. So as we set off on the hike, we initially weren’t finding as many mushrooms as Feinstein says he does most weekends. The occasional mushroom we did find, had gills, and though they were interesting colors and shapes (including vibrant red and even green). I started to think we would go the whole hike without finding anything edible. I was feeling somewhat relieved that this might not be my last day on earth, but also a little let down in missing the danger.
As we went deeper into the forest, a fellow student came up to Feinstein with a handful of long, funnel shaped golden fungus. This turned out to be the beautiful and very tasty golden chanterelle mushrooms.
As the hike progressed, we began to encounter more and more mushroom diversity, and started to see patches of golden chanterelle mushrooms almost everywhere we went. Who knew such a beautiful thing was so common? We started to get comfortable with the idea of eating these findings when we realized how distinctive they were. There is nothing else in the forest that looks remotely like them.
Here are some of the other interesting things that we found:
Candy cap mushrooms were our favorite find. They have an earthy, but very sweet smell that smells shockingly like maple syrup! Candy caps are edible and are often used in baked goods. Our instructor told us that Far West Fungi, a wild mushroom shop in San Francisco’s Ferry Building, even sells candy cap ice cream!
Coral mushrooms are very strange looking. They grow in a giant cluster of branching stems that looked straight out of a coral reef. They are edible, but Kevin told us they sometimes have a strong laxative effect. I decided I’d rather not risk this.
Turkey tails are colorful, leathery disks that grow on tree bark. In traditional Chinese medicine, they are thought to be immune-enhancing and used therapeutically. The fungus is dried and either ingested in powdered form, or a tea is made from the plant. Compounds extracted from turkey tail mushrooms are being studied for use in conventional cancer therapies.
At the end of the wild mushroom identification course, Feinstein sorted through haul to make sure everything we took home was safe to eat and also decent quality. All of ours were identified correctly as being edible, but he threw out some that looked rotten and a little gross. We got a little carried away early on when it looked like we wouldn’t find very much.
We took home a good mix of golden chanterelles, pig ear chanterelles, hedgehogs, candy caps and turkey tails. It was enough for us to eat wild mushrooms in every meal for the next week! It was a great learning opportunity and a unique adventure. I feel comfortable now identifying golden chanterelles and candy cap mushrooms, but I’m not sure I’d feel safe finding anything else on a solo mushroom picking trip.
ForageSF also does wild morel mushroom identification courses out in the Sierras and I’d love to do that one day.
DISCLAIMER: Do NOT use this site to identify edible wild mushrooms in the field. Only eat things that you know to be safe and legal — don’t take my word for it.