Mushroom-hunting feels a lot like going on safari. As I creep along in the early morning sunshine with my fellow foragers, peering first at the tree line and then bent double to inspect the ground, there’s a sense we’re tracking an elusive beast, each of us quietly praying for a sighting through the foliage or evidence of its passing under our feet.
The level of excitement is palpable. Some hunters clutch binoculars. Others have the mycologist bible Mushrooms Demystified, first published by David Arora in 1979, in the crook of an elbow. Everyone wants to be the first to spot the first fungus of the day.
Within minutes, someone calls out that he’s found one, tan against the green grass, and we all descend upon the spot. Our fearless leader, retired State Park Ranger Chuck Bancroft, is giggly as a schoolgirl as he kneels down to better excavate the find with his trowel.
“It’s an Amanita velosa — you see the striations on the edges, and little cap on the top and the cup-like volva at the bottom? This mushroom grows from an egg-like orb, called a universal veil, and its remains are left at the top and bottom as it grows,” says Bancroft, passing it around for a better look.
Amanitas, as it turns out, are not for beginners. While Amanita velosa, known affectionately in mycologist circles as “Blusher”, is edible, many in the family are not. Take a bite out of A. ocreata or A. phalloides, or “Destroying Angel” and “Death Cap” respectively, and at best you might get away with needing a kidney transplant. Deaths are rare in California — the state logs around six to 12 poisonings a year — but as Bancroft says: “If in doubt, throw it out”.
“Some people don’t eat Amanitas at all. To be honest, I won’t eat them unless Phil says it’s OK,” adds Bancroft, nodding at Philip Carpenter, the hunt’s co-leader. Carpenter has been a member of the Fungus Federation of nearby Santa Cruz since its inception in 1984. As Programmes Minister, he’s responsible for organising workshops, meetings and hunts within California and as far afield as Alaska during the mushroom foraging season from September to March.
Blusher goes into Bancroft’s basket — he plans to savour its delectable nutty flavour later — and our hunt continues.
As we comb the undergrowth, I learn that many of my fellow foragers — while happy to find any kind of mushroom to take home — are secretly hoping to find chanterelles, the frilled delicacy that would fetch up to US$62 per kg at my fancy corner gourmet store.
The jewel of this prospective treasure? The giant, California golden chanterelle, Cantharellus californicus, singled out by David Arora and Susie Dunham in 2008 as the largest in the world.
Conditions for finding it are perfect. Over the last winter and early spring, California has had the largest amount of rain in years and the location of the hunt, the 20,000-acre Santa Lucia Preserve in Carmel, is one of the state’s most exclusive gated communities, so it’s safe to say nobody else has been here.
Originally home to Rumsen Native Americans before being handed out as Mexican land grafts in Old California in the 1800s, the property was owned by George Gordon Moore, a Gatsby-esque gentleman rancher and bon vivant who entertained singers and high society here in the 1920s and 1930s, before the land was established as a privately held residential property in the 1990s. Under the Santa Lucia Preserve conservancy a maximum of 300 homes can be built on 2,000 acres of the property, leaving 90 percent undeveloped; its residents, many of whom have paid up to US$2 million for a plot of land to keep horses, as well as enjoy complete seclusion and no tee times at the private Tom Fazio-designed Golf Course.
Only three mushroom hunts are held on the vast property each year. One is exclusive to residents. One is a tradition for one of the resident’s birthdays. And the third is today’s hunt, at which tickets are priced at US$195 a head as part of Relais & Chateaux’s GourmetFest, an annual four-day extravaganza of dinners, tastings and culinary events anchored at Relais & Chateaux hotel L’Auberge Carmel, five miles away.
Once we arrived on the property that morning, it had been another 15 minutes’ drive through rolling hills and bluffs — small signs dotting the road were the only thing to suggest anybody lives here at all — before we reached the 1920s ochre-walled Hacienda, home to the estate’s private Preserve Club and the rallying point for today’s hunt.
Looking at the assembled foragers stockpiling energy in the form of piping hot cups of coffee and delicate pastries slathered in truffle honey and candy cap butter (which looks and tastes like a mix of dulce de leche and caramel), I realised that there’s a definite mushroom-hunting look.
Most are wearing hiking boots or shoes, walking pants that reach to the tops of the shoes, a large jacket with lots of pockets and a wide brimmed hat, all in shades of earth, black and beige.
There’s also an essential kit: A collection of paper bags with clips or a basket. A trowel and/or knife (ideally tied to yourself or your basket so that you don’t lose either). A soft paintbrush to remove the soil from your finds. And then, for pros like Bancroft, a whistle, a compass, matches — and a child. “They make useful spotters because they’re closer to the ground,” he advises, sagely.
Dressed in yoga pants and running shoes and with a single carrier bag, I felt woefully unprepared and understyled, but Bancroft assured me that I’d be fine. It’s a sunny day and Bancroft, familiar with the landscape and armed with an intimate knowledge of ideal fungal habitats, knew exactly where to start.
“Black trumpets are hard to find — you have to look for down logs. You’ll find Porcini in a pine forest where there’s raised duff. But today, we’re looking for chanterelles, which means we’re looking for tan oak, live oak, yerba buena and woodrat nests,” he had said, as we fanned out through the undergrowth.
Soon everyone is unearthing fungus and as people get into it, things get a little… competitive.
“I’ve found turkey tails!” exclaims one lady, duly holding up the variegated fans for inspection.
“Very nice — these are being used in cancer research; the liquid is good for sore throats,” says Bancroft.
Somebody else found a huge bracket fungus known as artist’s conk, on which Bancroft scores a pattern with a house key to demonstrate its capacity as a creative medium.
“I’ve got Amanita novinupta!” Cue clenched fists, some held aloft in jubilation with a whoop, others in FOMO agony.
And as we round up the hunt, one gentleman emerges from the tree line, grinning like the cat that got the cream, clutching a blue cap full of chanterelles, earning him claps on the back and the respect of his fellow hunters.
“Drinks on you then, when we get back to the Hacienda,” says one hunter.