“Oh yeah, he’s a mushroom person. “
I heard this several times during the afternoon as Patrick Hamilton, our mushroom foraging expert, was referring to yet another very notable chef who he’s foraged with over the years. And why should I be surprised? The best chefs truly care about ingredient quality, and there’s no better way to guarantee that than to source your own produce. It was with those words from Patrick that I suddenly felt like I had become privy to the “insider’s foraging scene” of the restaurant industry. I certainly had no idea foraging was a thing among chefs when I decided to sign up for an afternoon of mushroom hunting through ForageSF!
As a mushroom lover, I was really curious to learn about foraging funghi in the wild. In San Francisco, we’re fortunate enough to have access to some of the best wild mushrooms in the world, so why not try to hunt some?! Courtesy of ForageSF, I was able to take one of their mushroom hunting classes on the Sonoma Coast. They also offer a sea foraging class – think mussels, seaweed, and even eel!
The Hunt Begins
We began our adventure in the coastal town of Jenner, our meeting point located ~75 miles north of San Francisco. Once the group of 12 gathered at 10am, we carpooled and drove another 25 minutes north along the coast to Salt Point State Park. Throughout our drive, we saw many other mushroom foragers hauling baskets of funghi to their cars. I carpooled with Patrick, our guide, who shared so many great stories and tips from his 40 years of foraging experience.
Once we arrived at Salt Point, we hiked up an easy trail for about 15 minutes. Along the way, Patrick would stop to point out a certain kind of mushroom and share some unique facts. We continued to hike up to a few specific areas he had in mind based on mushrooms that were growing during that weekend.
“Is this one edible?”
As we continued up the trail, Patrick explained the mushrooms we should expect to find that day: Candy Caps, Matsutakes, Hedgehogs, Yellowfoot, and Black Trumpets. The different kinds grow in unique parts of the forest, and even near specific types of trees. Once we entered a new part of the forest, we would break up for 30 minutes to explore the area and bring back any mushrooms we found. Patrick would help us identify them through characteristics like texture, smell, appearance, and more.
My first finds of the day were Candy Caps. Unlike most mushrooms which are more savory, Candy Caps give off a maple syrup fragrance and taste. Top chefs have been creatively using Candy Caps in a variety of desserts including shortbread, ice cream, bread pudding, cookies, and more. Benu, a 3 Michelin star restaurant in SF, even used them to make cookies crumbs to serve with their sorbet, several years ago.
Matsutakes were pretty challenging to find, but definitely one of the prized possessions of the foray! They grow near Pine trees (which is why they’re also called Pine mushrooms), and are usually hidden under branches or leaves. Matsutakes have a spicy aroma and clean flavor, and are considered a delicacy in Japanese cooking.
Last, but certainly not least were the chanterelles. I found both golden chanterelles and black chanterelles, also called black trumpet mushrooms. We spotted a handful of golden chanterelles throughout the afternoon, and they were scattered throughout the forest floor. Golden chanterelles have a fruity, apricot-like fragrance that makes them quite versatile in cooking. The black trumpets grew in clusters; once we spotted a few, there were many, many more surrounding them. Black trumpets have a woody, smoky flavor and meaty texture that works really well in light pasta dishes, or in a sauce for chicken or fish.
After nearly 3 hours of foraging, our class came to an end and we reviewed our inventory with Patrick to ensure there weren’t any poisonous goods coming home with us! The goal of the trip wasn’t to bring home as many mushrooms as possible, but instead to learn the basics so we could forage on our own. When the time comes to go out on your own, it’s important to confirm which locations are legal for foraging as well as respect the weight limit of 5 pounds per person.
A Worthwhile Adventure
This class was a unique look into the world of mushroom foraging, alongside a true expert in the field. There were a few things I felt could be done to improve the experience though. First, it would have been good to have photos and written descriptions of the mushrooms we were looking for, since it wasn’t always clear what they were supposed to look like. One of the fellow foragers brought this book along, which was helpful and recommended by Patrick (if you’re interested in foraging, it’s probably worth the $11 to buy it). Also, the price of the class ($90) seemed fairly expensive considering it didn’t include any field guide handouts, lunch, or transportation to the meeting place.
That being said, I came home with a basketful of beautiful, hard-to-find, fresh mushrooms. And I went right to cooking them once I got home! I rinsed my foraged goods under cold water, and let them air dry on a paper towel-lined cookie sheet. With the black trumpets, I tore them open and made sure to rinse them well. Later in the evening, I made a creamy risotto using the black trumpets along with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and black truffle oil. With ingredients picked the same day, it’s no wonder restaurant chefs are flocking to foraging!
Be sure to check out the ForageSF mushroom hunting classes and more on their website. And if you’re still doing your last minute holiday shopping, these classes would make a really wonderful gift for someone who loves to cook and enjoys the outdoors!