I had been anticipating this trip for a long time. Last year, when my friend (and fellow forager) Langdon Cook visited Sacramento to promote his book Fat of the Land, we talked about a joint foraging trip for mushrooms up his way in Washington. I said let’s make this happen. I am a good forager, but Lang knows his ‘shrooms better than I do, and I wanted to learn.
I especially wanted to seek out spring porcini mushrooms, the boletus rex-veris, which live on the east side of the Cascades mountain range. They grow as far south as California, but I had no idea what to look for, so I really wanted to spend some time with Lang, so I could get a sense of their habitat, head to Shasta and learn my own porcini spots.
Why spring porcini? They are big, meaty, beautiful mushrooms that dry well. Although not as fragrant as the fall porcini, the spring kings are plenty tasty, with an aroma that’s a little piney, and a little something else. Lang thinks they smell a little like a trout when it first comes out of the water; I agree.
Lang said we’d also look for morels, which are still coming on in the high elevations. I’d scored a major victory the previous weekend by finding a decent flush of morels at 5,500 feet, so I knew what to look for.
So Holly and I headed up to Seattle with some business to attend to first. Media maven Keren Brown had set up a bloggers’ lunch for us at the Pike Place Brewery, and I got to meet a few people I’d already met, such as Tea Austen, whose new book, The Butcher and the Vegetarian, is on my to-read list now. I also got to meet some people I “talk” with all the time via the interwebs, notably Becky Selengut of Chef Reinvented. Holly and I met a host of new friends, too — people I hope to see more of in the days to come.
But we still had one more stop before we headed into the Mushroom Woods. Poor me, I had to dine at the Herbfarm with Lang and his wife Marty, as well as fellow food blogger Matt Wright and his wife Danika. Now any of you who’ve heard of the Herbfarm can detect the sarcasm of that last sentence — this is one of the best restaurants in the United States, with food so beautiful and so well executed that I’d rather eat there once than a hundred times at Chez Panisse. Yep, it’s that good.
The menu — all nine courses of it — is too complex to go into here, but suffice to say it had a healthy sprinkling of wild food, highlighted by proprietor Ron Zimmerman’s knotweed-honey sorbet on a sorrel panna cotta. And yes, there were both morels and spring porcini on the menu.
Finishing the evening, sipping a perfectly made madrone bark “coffee,” I realized what was special about Zimmerman and chef Tony Demes’ food: I’d never eaten a meal that so closely matched my own sensibilities about food, constructed by people with so much skill. It was inspirational.
And it was a good send-off into the Washington woods.
We drove in Langdon’s Westfalia van (I felt like we could have been following the Grateful Dead in it) over the mountains to the East Side, where he said the porcini had just arrived. They are late this year, with our weird spring, and he’d been nervous about us driving 767 miles — each way — for nothing.
But once we got to a likely looking stretch of woods, it did not take long to spot the tell-tale “mushrump” of a porcino pushing up from under the pine duff.
Lang found the first few porcini. Then I spotted one, a button just emerging. Moving the duff from around the cap, it had that perfectly plump stem that gives their Italian name porcino, or “little pig,” meaning. I cut it at the base, leaving the “roots” attached and trimmed off the dirt from the bottom. My first ever porcini!
Holly found one soon after, and we were in business. Nearly all the mushrooms we found were buttons like this, which is a good thing: Newly emerged mushrooms are less likely to be filled with teeny mushroom maggots, which are the bane of porcini hunters.
Even still, we had a lot of fly damage:
Those holes and trails mean the worms are in the mushroom. All is not lost, however, because when you slice the ‘shroom to dry it, the worms get freaked out and leave the porcino once its moisture content drops to a certain level. This is, I suspect, why prices for dry porcini are not nearly so high as they are for fresh, which can run $30 a pound.
Once I cut all our porcini open at home, I wound up “losing” 60 percent to worms. That just means I’ll have a lot of dried porcini, though, which is still a good thing.
We also saw tons of other mushrooms on the trail, such as this coral mushroom:
We also saw a fair number of yellow amanitas, which are quite poisonous.
Growing on logs were these little brown mushrooms. I never managed to identify them, but they might be honey mushrooms. I did not pick any, so this photo is all I got.
Finally, here and there, we found morels. Lang said these were “naturals,” not the traditional “burn morels” we find in the Sierra, which can flush in huge numbers. Natural morels are scattered, and are hard to spot, at least for me; Holly got pretty good at spotting them, though.
These are two morels Holly found on an elk trail. Yes, an elk trail! How cool is that? We have elk in California, but not that many of them, so it was neat to see the huge tracks here and there.
Spotting morels requires a kind of relaxed awareness and ability to spot patterns that we all possess, but I am guessing Holly’s martial arts training (she holds a black belt in tae kwon do) makes her especially good at. Me? I am a far better porcini spotter. Porcini like being near certain trees, grand fir being one of them, and their “mushrumps” are obvious once you get your mushroom eyes on. How many porcini can you spot in this picture?
For the record, there are three. After the first day’s foraging, we decided on a camp meal of mushrooms and sausages we’d brought from Seattle, plus some onion and garlic.
There is nothing quite like fresh mushrooms, sauteed in a little olive oil, cooked down with pork sausages, onion and lots of garlic. Of course the beer, wine and whiskey we drank with it didn’t hurt, either.
But I wanted a salad, too. And not just any salad. Along the trail, Lang had pointed out a variety of wild violet with yellow flowers, which really ought to be called “yellows,” don’t you think? I suspect many in the Pacific Northwest may not associate the flower they call “violet” with the color violet. Weird how that happens.
At any rate, I picked a bunch of wild violets and sliced a few porcini thin for a raw porcini salad, dressed with salt, olive oil and a little Chinese rice wine Lang had brought along. It was delicious.
We had a grand time, from beginning to end, and came home with enough fresh porcini for three meals — more on them later — as well as enough to dry to carry us through to the fall porcini season.
What’s more, Langdon taught me a lot about how to find my own porcini. So now it’s my turn to hit the California woods, find some ‘shrooms, and bring him down here to return the favor.
Here’s slideshow of more photos from our mushroom hunt that Holly created:
And here is Langdon’s account of the porcini hunting trip.