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Bay Area Backyards: Foraging with Sonoma’s Mushroom Monarch

Discovering the Bay Area, with one swashbuckler at a time

Elissa Rubin-Mahon

Elissa Rubin-Mahon

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Elissa Rubin-Mahon

A mushroom

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Elissa Rubin-Mahon

Elissa Rubin-Mahon

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Elissa Rubin-Mahon

On the hunt

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Elissa Rubin-Mahon

A yellow chanterelle

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Elissa Rubin-Mahon

The feast

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It’s a crisp Sunday morning in January, and I’m following Elissa Rubin-Mahon, a veteran mycologist, into the wilds of the Sonoma backcountry. Technically, we’re on Gustafson Family Vineyards property, the highest estate winery in the county at about 8,000-feet, but it feels much more remote as we veer off the trail, our feet sinking into leafy mulch. A wood pendant carved in the form of a shiitake swings from Elissa’s neck and her long, white hair runs down her back in a single braid. She prods the soggy earth with the tip of her staff, then gently claws a large round custard-color mushroom from the soil.

We’re foraging for mushrooms with about fifteen other people who are slogging through the forest in muddy rain boots and swinging wicker baskets at their sides. “I brought my daughter’s Easter basket, for good luck,” one woman says. We’re looking for any variety of mushrooms that grow in Sonoma—prince agaric, butter bolete, fire trumpet, shamanic psilocybe cyanescens once used by the native Pomo Indians—but this group is particularly interested in edibles we can cook up when we return, like candy caps or chanterelles.

Rubin-Mahon first went foraging as a college freshman about 40 years ago when her roommate’s mother invited her on a morel hunt. “I remember the otherworldly deep-pitted golden cones like meteors or overheated space debris poking up among the flowers and grass,” she recalls. “My friend’s mom dipped them in egg batter, then fried them in butter, and served them by the platter. At a time when most people thought that mushrooms grew in cans, they were a revelation—nutty, butterscotch, loamy, tender, crispy-edged, and voluptuous.”

Her obsession with mushrooms hasn’t waned, and she now she leads foraging treks in Sonoma County through Relish Culinary Adventures, which is based in Healdsburg. Sonoma is one of the best parts of the state for such treks, with more than a thousand varieties sprouting from its hills. The region’s many microclimates and soil varieties create diverse habitats that spawn a plethora of mushroom varieties. And the temperate climate usually makes for an extended foraging season, from fall through spring—sometimes even into the summer months.

“There’s nothing like emerging from the bush with sticks in your hair and a basket full of edibles,” she says, moving a branch out of the way. As one of the few women foragers, she’s garnered a reputation as a bit of a badass. She’s had a shotgun pulled on her in the Sierras, encountered wild pigs, and gone foraging in the British Columbia backcountry with grizzlies. But today things are less dramatic as she walks through the oaks and madrones at a grandmotherly pace. Her method, she says, is equal parts intellectual and intuitive. She scans for telltale signs emerging from the dirt, like areas where the leaf litter —the leaves that cover the ground—seems to pushing up in small mounds, hinting at something rising beneath the surface.

At the end of the forage, we dump the loot on the table. She evaluates the mushrooms one by one, examining their cap shape, dimple size, texture, gill width and veins. “This one tastes like sweet rubber,” she says. “And this smells like rocket fuel.” She evaluates a mushroom, “If it had pink gills and a crocodile-y cap I’d say it was an agaric.” When she snaps the stem of a bulky white mushroom, its chalkiness tells her it’s a russula. Someone hands her a brown petrified mushroom, “This is highly perishable and has passed the ID stage,” she says. “ Now it’s just a corpse. We’ll never know what it once was.”

The crowd makes its way to a long communal table for a a mushroom-themed brunch prepared by Relish—candy cap mushroom scones, roasted mushroom salad with maitakes and chanterelles, and black trumpet mushroom fritatta crowd the table. At the end of the meal, a trove of yellowfoot chanterelles collected on the hike appears, sautéed in butter and served alone so we can taste the simplicity of what we’ve found.

The next scheduled mushroom forages are February 22 and March 8. Sign up through Relish Culinary Adventures.

 

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