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Foraging for Mushrooms

Porcinis, black trumpets and candy caps, oh my! Mushroom foraging in the Monterey Bay area most likely brings to mind the beautiful fan-shaped golden chanterelle, but the oak, redwood and mixed pine forests of the area have much, much more to offer in the way of fungus among us. Chef Zachary Mazi of LionFish SupperClub, with 15 years of mushroom foraging experience under his belt, has been leading me on excursions through the damp forests surrounding Santa Cruz this fall and winter. These trips have become an exciting and productive pastime for me, and I recently made my first solo discovery of candy caps.

Nothing can quite compare to the excitement of finding edible mushrooms; I was literally jumping up and down the first time I spotted a patch on my own. I haven’t struck gold before, but I’d imagine that’s probably the closest feeling—except mushroom gold is tasty, buttery and pairs well with all sorts of things, from wine, to steak, to (believe it or not) ice cream. By foraging for food, we as humans are reconnected to deep, ancient rhythms and traditions that were part of the human experience for millions of years. And after trying a dish containing such divinity as the golden chanterelle, one can see why the Roman emperor Nero termed mushrooms “the food of the gods.”

It may surprise you to learn that humans are more closely related to fungi than any other kingdom, and yet we know the least about them. And here in America, many people tend to be mycophobic (mushroom-fearing), compared to other cultures such as the Italians who are mycophilic (mushroom-loving). Yes, some mushrooms are poisonous and even deadly, but some mushrooms are drop-dead delicious and nutritious to boot. Also, many are actually highly medicinal and are currently being studied for their health benefits, including the treatment of cancer.

Of the estimated 1.5 – 5 million species of fungi on earth, only about 14,000 have been scientifically studied so far. The scientific study of mushrooms is called mycology, and I can’t bring up mycology without mentioning Paul Stamets, who has been studying mushrooms for over 40 years. He is the foremost authority on the subject, and believes that fungi can save our lives and restore our ecosystems – including helping bees recover from colony collapse.

The Fungus Federation of Santa Cruz is a wealth of resources in all things fungi, and I look forward to attending their upcoming foray in Mendocino. On their website, they suggest that those new to foraging join FFSC, go on organized forays, spend time with experts doing identification at events, take classes such as those offered at FFSC, and use a good field guide – recommended for central California is Mushrooms Demystified by David Arora, who started the Santa Cruz Fungus Fair 41 years ago while he was a student at UCSC. A guide specific to the Santa Cruz area is to be released this summer – Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast: A Comprehensive Guide to the Fungi of Coastal Northern California by Noah Siegel and Christian Schwartz. When it rains it spores. Seriously, it does.

Be careful if you’re new to foraging for mushrooms and make sure you identify your findings with a mycologist before consuming, as many varieties have “look-alikes” that are toxic, some even deadly. In addition, always cook your mushrooms before enjoying the fruits of your labor. Raw mushrooms are difficult to digest because their cell walls are made of chitin (the same thing that exoskeletons of arthropods are made of), which breaks down during cooking. They can also contain harmful microbes, which are killed by cooking, and some delicious edibles, including morels, are actually toxic when raw.

As the adage goes, “There are old mushroom hunters and bold mushroom hunters, but there are no old, bold mushroom hunters.” 

The Black Trumpet (Craterellus cornucopioides)

A chef favorite, the unassuming black trumpet has a slightly smoky, nutty flavor and truffle-like aroma. It is shaped like a thin, hollow funnel expanding at the top, and is, on average, about four inches tall and three inches in diameter. The inner surface, which curls outward at the top, is black to dark grey, while the lower and sometimes slightly wrinkled fertile surface is a lighter grey. Its spore print is white to pinkish yellow. In the Santa Cruz area, it forms mycorrhizal partnerships with tan oak and coast live oak and is found after rain. It is particularly hard to find, due to its dark coloring, and can be spotted by searching for black holes in the ground. According to Chef Zachary, black trumpets add a unique deliciousness to any dish. Of course, butter, garlic and cream are all wonderfully complimentary. A little Parmigiano Reggiano or Pecorino Romano wouldn’t hurt!

The Blewit (Clitocybe nuda)*

This litter-decomposing saprobe feeds off of organic debris, so can be found anywhere organic matter is decomposing. The blewit is a medium-sized gilled mushroom with a broadly convex or nearly flat cap that has a rolled-under edge when young. The sticky and smooth surface is a lavender-purple that fades to pale tan as it ages. The gills are a purplish when young, turning to pale brown with age, are not covered by a cobwebby veil when young and are attached to the stem, by a notch in most cases. They have a fairly thick, pale stem in hues of light blue, purple and white, which browns as it ages. Their spore print is pale pink, almost white, and the whitish-lilac flesh does not change color when sliced. The strong flavor with a hint of warm spice would lend well to a steak or stew.

* Blewits are considered expert level due to toxic “look-alikes.”

The Candy Cap (Lactarius rubidus)

These rusty-orange, medium gilled mycorrhizal mushrooms are a delight to glimpse growing under tan oaks and coast live oaks in the area. Once you spot one, there are sure to be more. The reddish to orange-brown cap is dry to slightly sticky, with a somewhat bumpy surface. Its shape is convex when young, growing into a shallow vase as it ages. The gills are a pale orange and are attached to the stem, which is smooth and similar in color to the cap. The flesh is a light orange, and does not change color when sliced, unlike the candy cap’s potentially poisonous look-alike Lactarius xanthogalactus, which has white milk that turns yellow when exposed. Their distinctive maple syrup odor helps with identification, and they’re popular dried and ground for the maple flavor they add to desert dishes. I’ve found them to be quite tantalizing fresh with scrambled eggs, lending a mild maple smokiness and meaty texture. Did somebody say bacon?

The Golden Chanterelle (Cantharellus californicus)

Likely the most widely known mushroom of the area, the infamous golden chanterelle is a culinary delicacy, with an earthy, fruity aroma and a buttery, apricot flavor that wants to be shown off. It is a sunny yellow, meaty and funnel-shaped, with a fluted cap that is smooth, golden-orange and has irregular edges. False gills run down the stem, and are often forked and cross-veined. The flesh is thick and white, and sometimes shows an orange-red bruising with age and handling. Golden chanterelles are mycorrhizal partners with coast live oaks and grow the largest of all chanterelles. They do have a couple of “look-alikes.” One is the toxic jack o’ lantern, Omphalotus olivascens, which unlike the chanterelle, grows on dead wood and has true, deep gills with a greenish cast and orange flesh – pretty hard to mistake. The other is the false chanterelle, Hygrophoropsis aurantiaca, a common orange mushroom that is said to be more likely to produce disappointment in eager beginners than gastric upset.

The Porcini (Boletus edulis)

One of the heftiest, tastiest and most prized mushrooms, the porcini is quite an impressive sight to behold. This king bolete (Boletus edulis) has a large reddish-brown cap (up to 14 inches) with a tacky surface that is convex when young and flattens with age. The underneath fertile surface is tubed rather than gilled, and white, but turns an olive yellow with age. The spore print is olive brown. The flesh is white, and can sometimes turn a light brown or light red when cut. Its white to pale brown stem is large and swollen, with no ring, and has a fine netlike pattern over the upper half. Porcinis form mycorrhizal partnerships in our mixed oak and pine forests and appear after the first fall rains. These delicious treats gain better texture and more flavor when dried and powdered or reconstituted, and are great with just about everything, especially when cream is involved. Fresh, Chef Zachary recommends them with crab, brown butter and sage.



American Journal of Botany

Fungi Perfecti

Fungus Federation of Santa Cruz

The Mycota of Santa Cruz County

Bertelsen, Cynthia. Mushroom: A Global History, Reaktion Books Ltd (London), 2013.

Kuo, Michael. 100 Edible Mushrooms, University of Michigan, 2007.

Rogers, Robert. The Fungal Pharmacy: The Complete Guide to Medicinal Mushrooms & Lichens of North America, North Atlantic Books (Berkeley, CA), 2011.


Black Trumpet:


Candy Cap 1 & 2, Golden Chanterelle: Elizabeth Hodges