How to find wild fungi forays and tempting gourmet delicacies

At the entrance of Sonoma County’s oak-speckled Ragle Ranch Park on a crisp December morning, Darvin DeShazer confesses, “It’s like an addiction.” The biologist sports a hat bearing Amanita muscaria, a bright red mushroom with white spots. Set against the forest’s greenery, these cartoonish toadstools elicit holiday cheer. But in times past, this psychoactive fungus held a more spiritual role, from Siberia to Scandinavia to Mesopotamia—some even theorize that Christianity itself evolved from a fertility cult steeped in the toxic consumption of these colorful woodland ornaments.

Darvin isn’t much for precarious edibles, nor does he seem the mystical type. However, his affinity for all things mushroom transcends mere hobby. Darvin starts most days with a mushroom hunt, squeezes in another on his lunch break and, if at all possible, one more before sunset. He once logged over 1,000 fungi forays in a single year. Mystical maybe not; devout, unquestionably.
“Okay,” he admits, “it’s not like an addiction; it is an addiction.”

The co-founder and scientific advisor to the Sonoma County Mycological Association met me in Ragle Ranch Park to share his passion. After a bit of chit-chat near the park’s entrance, I asked when our treasure hunt would begin. “Well, there’s a few hundred right over there,” he said, pointing. I squinted. Sure enough, not 20 feet away, where before I’d only seen fallen leaves, there suddenly appeared in clear sight a miniature metropolis of what he called Psathyrella, little brown buttons with slender stems.

Whatever spiritual force the ancients attributed to these fungi, one thing is certain: a single forage instantly transforms your perception, slows your step, and humbles you to the realization of how little we actually see. Deep beneath our feet, Darvin explained as we began through the park, stretched endless miles of tangled mycelium on which the entire ecology depends while we unknowingly inhale countless fungi spores floating invisibly through the air. Those mushrooms every so often emerging from the surface give us just a momentary glimpse into a far more vast and mysterious kingdom that we humans have only begun to understand.

Gourmet Mushrooms
Ten minutes down the road, where forests give way to vineyards on the outskirts of Sebastopol, an unassuming warehouse pays tribute to that same natural phenomenon of life-giving decomposition. At first glance, this 60,000-square-foot facility feels like a factory: big metal vats, plastic crates stacked high, hair-netted employees passing boxes down a conveyer belt. But here, like Darvin, Justin Reyes of Gourmet Mushrooms Inc. waxes poetic about fungi with a reverence not just for their productivity but for the underlying natural process that he and his team have managed to channel into a company that churns out 20,000 pounds of organic food per week.

Gourmet Mushrooms Inc. was founded back in the 1970s by Malcolm Clark and David Law after retrofitting an abandoned chicken farm in Sonoma County to grow shiitakes. At the time, aside from the conventional Campbell’s Soup-style variety and dehydrated imports, most Americans were unfamiliar with fresh, specialty mushrooms. Thanks to early pioneers like Gourmet Mushrooms as well as more refined American palates, since then that market has, well, mushroomed. Today, that single facility produces eight species, including clamshell, trumpets and maitake.

Our Neolithic diets included foraged mushrooms. But historical records of domestic cultivation date back only a few centuries. In France, early fungiculturalist Louis XIV produced these royal delicacies in caves. Holes were carved in logs, then filled with wood shavings from trees under which mushrooms had been observed.

While not quite as romantic as imperial caves and far from the forest’s serenity, the system at Gourmet Mushroom is surprisingly reminiscent of Nature’s closed-loop system, a sustainability goal Justin calls “biomimicry.” The sight of thousands of plastic bottles in which their mushrooms grow smacks of petroleum-laden wastefulness—until you learn that some of those bottles are a dozen years old, used over and over and over again to produce copious amounts of food.

Byproducts from wood mills and other agricultural production such as oak shavings and corn husks are mixed together and placed into each jug. After each is inoculated with a specific strain of fungi, the jugs are then placed into rooms, each with a temperature and humidity resembling the climate in which that variety naturally thrives. Over time, a web of mycelium—known as hyphae, a subterranean network that can extend for miles in Nature—grows within the confines of the plastic, eventually resembling a bottle of nutmeg-dense eggnog. At last, mushrooms begin to grow from the top. Lopped off and packaged up, these delicacies are then sent directly to grocery stores and restaurants nationwide.

As for that eggnog-like mixture? When the bottles get emptied out and reused for the next production cycle, heaps of mycelium-infused, semi-decomposed organic matter remain. But Gourmet Mushroom Inc. has no problem finding a taker for those big piles of “waste.”

As Darvin explained to me back in Ragle Ranch Park, hyphae spreads throughout the soil, attaching or entering into the root systems of other plants such as trees. There, they release enzymes that mine for mineral nutrients and water, like root extensions for their host plants. In return, the plants above photosynthesize, turning sunlight into carbohydrates that get sent back down to the fungi. Symbiosis at its finest.

Which is why a local company is happy to retrieve Gourmet Mushrooms’ waste by the ton, transforming it into top-notch, organic soil amendments rich in microbiology that can increase the yield and health of other agricultural products.

As for sustainability in the face of California’s enduring drought, Justin claims that each pound of mushrooms produced at their facility requires just 8 to 10 gallons of water. Compare that to 34 for broccoli, 141 for avocados, 302 for tofu, and a whopping 1,929 for almonds.

So why bother foraging?
To Darvin the answer is clear: wild foraging connects you to the natural world, hones your senses and leaves you in awe of a prolific kingdom comprising more than 5 million species—from gastronomic to lethal, common molds to evolutionary marvels like the parasitic cordyceps that can literally hypnotize animals to do their bidding. “Also, foraged mushrooms just taste better,” he says. And while some varieties take to domestication more easily, others remain more difficult to tame—porcinis, chanterelles and truffles, to name a few.

But Darvin is a fan of Gourmet Mushrooms Inc. too. Because while it’s tough to compete with Nature’s kitchen, the advantages of domestic production are many: year-round availability, local production of varieties otherwise only found thousands of miles away and, most of all, there’s no limit on supply. Which, to Darvin, is a big deal.

Until a few decades ago, 166 public parks in California permitted mushroom foraging for personal use. Commercial foraging, on the other hand, has always been limited to private property. But that didn’t stop black market foragers leaving state and national parks with sometimes thousands of dollars’ worth of goods. By the 1990s, with the demand for specialty mushrooms on the rise, California banned foraging in all but one park: Salt Point, 6,000 acres of fog-steeped forests on the northern coast of Sonoma County. Abundant in the tree species that summon edible mushrooms—Douglas-fir, madrone and live oak—this mycologist’s paradise is so productive that visitors here are allowed to carry out up to three pounds of foraged fungi.

Appreciative of this unique local gem, Darvin still bemoans what he calls “the tragedy of no commons.” Foraging, he claims, does little harm to the forest’s abundance; pulling a mushroom is akin to picking an apple from a tree and can actually help spread spores. These prohibitions, he says, don’t stop black market foragers, but it does keep the public from experiencing one of Nature’s greatest wonders.

Each month, Darvin leads a group from the Sonoma County Mycological Association (SOMA) on a hunt to Salt Point. SOMA is a non-profit group dedicated to learning about local mushrooms, and educating the public about the vast and diverse world of fungi. They sponsor a variety of mushroom-related activities as well as services such as free emergency mushroom identification. Each January, hundreds of enthusiasts—from scientists to chefs to amateurs who’ve caught fungi fever—gather in Occidental for SOMA Camp. This jam-packed, three-day event offers activities, lectures, and workshops all focused on wild mushrooms. And, of course, it concludes with a massive post-forage feast featuring the forest’s bounty.

So what’s next in the world of mushrooms? Quite a lot, it seems. While Darvin is busy identifying new wild species and Justin’s team continues adding new varieties to their production line—morels and lion’s mane are on their way—the myolical frontier is flourishing, gastronomically and beyond.

Wyatt Bryson of Mycolab Solutions, based in western Sonoma County, recently introduced his newest product, an addicting vegan jerky made of mushrooms he calls Jewels of the Forest. Innovators elsewhere are busy exploring the potential of mycelium-based leather, protein drinks and medicine. Environmentalists and scientists are even exploring strains that can soak up heavy metals and toxins from the soil, remediate oil spills, filter bacteria from drinking water and break down plastics just as they do organic material on the forest floor.

“We’ve barely scratched the surface,” says Justin, who attends conferences on the emerging field of Mushroom Tech when not busy at work producing edibles. “So much is possible. It’s an industry that’s about to explode.”

Darvin, on the other hand, seems content with Nature’s innovation. Newbies on a forage, he says, always annoy him with the same question over and over: Can I eat this? But after a while, those questions expand. “Mushrooms make you inquisitive,” he says. “Soon enough, not only are you looking for chanterelles and porcini, but also for salamanders, animal tracks, all the other interconnections of the forest. And the thrill of the hunt, there’s just nothing like it.”   SD

OF NOTE
To learn details about upcoming wild mushroom forays, meetings and more, go to SOMAmushrooms.org.
If you think someone, including your dog, may have eaten a poisonous mushroom, contact Darvin DeShazer for emergency identification, 707-829-0526; email photo to muscaria@pacbell.net.