James – the Mushroom Magician

I would like to introduce you to James. He is by far one of the most Mercurial beings I have ever had the pleasure of meeting and his passion is mushrooms. I met James through some mutual friends when I stumbled upon his mycological secret and several weeks ago, I convinced him to take me along on a foraging adventure.

Via e-mail, we debated for some time when to go and where to go. The when was moreso to coincide our busy schedules while the where was dependent upon the mushrooms we were to go a-hunting for.

“Salt Point State Park is one of the very few State Parks that allows harvesting of wild native fungi. They give you a five-pound limit, though it is easy to pick eight times this in a single day. The habitat there varies as do the kinds of mushrooms that grow in them. It’s best known for it’s Porcini (Boletus edulis). The season right now is ripe with Hedgehogs (Hydnum repandum with its many variants), Black Trumpets (Craterellus cornucopioides), and Yellow Foot (Cantharellus infundibuliformis ]) which is quite plentiful compared to the other two. All of these mushrooms are used by most of the white table restaurants in the Bay Area.

There is also the East Bay ecosystems which are muddier and have less variety of edible fungi in greater quantities, though Golden Chantrelles are probably the most abundant. The problem is the park rangers here will issue tickets if they catch you with native fungi or collecting it. Who would miss 46 pounds of chantrelles collected off the hiking trails?”

We decided on a spot a bit north of Salt Point but to get there at optimal foraging time, we had to leave the city by 4:30 a.m. Borrowing my beloved friend Tom’s Lotus (how best to scurry up the coast pre-dawn?), I picked James up and we set off. As a member of the Bay Area Mycological Society, James frequently leads groups on special trips, but on our special day, I had him and his fanciful ways all to myself. The instructions he gave me were specific: What to bring: rain gear, water proof hiking shoes or boots, a backpack or something to carry mushrooms in, a strong plastic shopping bag lined with a paper bag, a small sharp knife (pocket knife), water, snacks or a lunch.

When we arrived at our destination – shortly after 7:00 a.m. – James pointed up the hill. “About a 45-minute hike up,” he instructed. Thank god I’ve been going to the gym, I thought. Quite a hike it was as I wondered what I had gotten myself into. Two-thirds up the trail, James looked to his left. “I was there last week, but you never know.” Advising me that the area where he was looking towards might already have been picked clean, we headed off the trail and walked into a forest of dense brush. During our hike, we bantered recipes, preservation techniques, and folklore. James saw them first. Bright yellow Hedgehog mushrooms; first two then ten then more. “We’re hunt’n hogs!” James sang. It was not long before I realized I was in the presence of a mushroom dowser. Instinctively and magically, James just knew where he was going to strike fungi gold. And the more he stumbled upon, the more gleeful his banter became. “Black Trumpets!” He would call out. They were much harder to see against the darkness of the dead and wet leaves. Like a suitor presenting long-stem roses, he would pull a bouquet of Black Trumpet, shining with admiration at his find. Yellow Feet would be bountiful for ten or fifteen minutes and then another huge flush of Hedgehog would be underfoot. I was in the presence of a Mushroom Magician.

I would spot an occasional oddity and was quickly informed what was safe to pick and what I should avoid. He would sing a bit — and giggle – and in a trancelike state we became lost amongst brambles and thick brush. It was easy to follow the Yellow Brick Road of the golden treasures that were presenting themselves, but I was getting concerned. “How far off the trail have you’ve gone and how long has it taken you to find it again?” I should not have been that concerned. Here was a man who quite literally is one with the earth, its movements, and its subtleties. In some cases, we crawled on our bellies under massively thick brush to snag our treasure. Drenched in wetness with bags laden, I was astonished at his effervencense and stamina. He would look up to the sky, see the position of the sun, and point to the direction where we had left the trail.

Hearkening back to my childhood days of those illusive Easter egg hunts, I remembered that I rarely found those hidden eggs and often felt dejected at the other childrens’ good fortune when I would go home empty handed. Not so now. This was my own private Easter egg hunt and each fungal find was redemption for years lacking those falsely colored eggs.

I had given James a time-limit as I had dinner reservations later that evening. That meant we had to pull out and head back a little after noon. That was barely six hours of foraging (for which I came home with a little more than 15 pounds while James’ bags burst easily with 40+). Yes, there are days where he starts at day break and will not quit until the sun starts to creep down on the horizon. Astonished and thrilled with my bags of goodies, James’ infectious joy had spilled over to me as my jaw hurt from the perpetual grin it had established during our day together.

And my first dish? A delightful mushroom tart, simply made with frozen puff pastry, a bit of gruyere, and a mis of a little egg to hold it all together. Perfect.

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One Response to “James – the Mushroom Magician”

  1. Cat Says:

    I see you know James ;-)
    It was he who introduced me to that which I introduced you to when last we met.
    Have you tried his chocolates yet?
    Congrats on the gym!

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