I spotted it. A swirl of pine duff that looked like a hurricane seen from space. In a flash I dropped to my knees to investigate. I looked around, then felt stupid. I just couldn’t control my impulse to be swift and furtive, even though this was the thousandth “mushrump” I’d spotted in the past few days, even though the nearest human being was probably a mile away. I looked closely at the pine duff hurricane. OK, buddy. Are you Vern? Or Mr. Brown? C’mon, big money, bring me Mr. Brown…
Carefully lifting away the shrump, I held my breath as I waited for the flash. It was canary yellow. Sigh. “Hello, Vern,” I said to this pretty mushroom. “Where’s Mr. Brown at?” I stood up for the umpteenth time, my knees a little creaky. I did not take a step, though. Vern likes to hang out with Mr. Brown, and I didn’t want to step on him by accident.
A few feet away, I spied another shrump, this one a little smaller. Again I dropped to the ground. Again I lifted up the duff. The flash? A warm ruddy brown, dusted with an ever-so-slight bloom, like that on a ripe grape. “Booyah!” I said, to no one in particular. Hey there, Mr. Brown, how you be? I moved away the duff.
A perfect porcini. A spring porcini, Boletus rex-veris, to be exact. I carefully pulled it from the ground, then used my knife to whittle away the dirt stuck to the base of the mushroom’s stem. I dusted off the cap with a brush and admired it. Even though it was small, this little king weighed nearly a half-pound. It was firm and its pores were white and tight. Not a trace of insect damage. More than 4000 feet below, this one mushroom could fetch $40 at a place like Whole Foods. Only markets never got porcini this fresh, this beautiful. Suckers.
Mushrooms like this are why I have been spending long days, largely alone, driving around the logging roads of the Sierra Nevada. I can’t help myself. I am a servant of the king.
Hunting porcini in springtime is not only different from hunting them in fall or winter, but it is also different from any other mushrooming I know. It is warm, or at least not cold, for starters. I find myself working up a sweat even on cool days as I scramble around steep slopes made slippery from mats of Ponderosa pine needles, cedar boughs and stray twigs of fir and spruce. Back in the truck, I have to keep a large cooler with ice and plastic trays ready so I can cool down my mushrooms as quickly as possible. Left in a hot truck, they can compost in hours.
Another thing about spring king hunting is that you will find few fellow mushrooms keeping them company. If you find morels, you are too early in the season, or too high in elevation; while they can co-exist, morels tend to precede the king. If you find rotten old russula mushrooms, you are definitely too early. Pretty much the only compadres the king keeps are the odd, lavender cup fungus Sarcosphaera coronaria, and Vern. Vern is my pet name for Amanita vernicoccora, which is a choice edible mushroom in and of itself.
But when I am hunting the king, it is the king that occupies my mind. Only the prettiest vernicoccora buttons will I take. I will, for the most part, leave perfectly good specimens in the duff that I would have gushed over a month before. Now I need to leave room in my pack for the porcini.
All day I drive around tiny, rutted dirt roads, looking for signs. Sometimes I see “flags,” old, worm-eaten porcini thrusting themselves into the sun like Icarus. Their public destruction gets me out of the car to watch. For spring kings prefer to keep their own company, and I can often find several nice ones surrounding this old ruin. This is the easiest way to fill a pack.
More often I look for indirect evidence, habitat, places I wish they might be. Mixed conifer forest. Big trees. Dappled sunlight. A heavy, thick layer of pine duff on the forest floor. As soon as I spot something that looks like that, I pull over. I kneel down and scratch through the duff to feel the soil. Is it cool? Is it moist? If so, I walk on.
This is what I am looking for. This is a mushrump:
This particular one was huge, and I knew that whatever was under it would be gnarly. It was. It was a vernicoccora, alive with flies and maggots. After a few thousand shrumps, you become a connoisseur: That one is not round enough, so it’s either two mushrooms or a log. This one definitely has a pine cone underneath. Pine cones are the enemy: A thousand pine cones under the duff can camouflage a perfect porcini. Maddening.
When you finally see that good shrump, you hold your breath in anticipation. Yet even with all this experience, I still get faked out about one time in ten, lifting a shrump where there is nothing underneath at all. The forest can play tricks on you.
And make no mistake: The forest is watching. There is something at once both spooky and calming about being alone in a gigantic forest. No cell phone service. Better have gas and a spare tire, to say nothing of water and a first aid kit. A bag of pretzels helps, too. Being here requires that you think ahead, that you remember where, exactly, you are, and how you can return when you are done. Don’t take too many risks. Listen carefully.
A few days ago I heard a crash. I stood with a start just in time to see a huge branch fall off an enormous Ponderosa pine. It was not windy. And just yesterday I heard another crash, followed by the rhythmic crunching of a running animal. Deer? Bear? Lion? I’ve not yet seen the latter two this porcini season, but it is only a matter of time. I did catch a glimpse of a bobcat last week. My first thought was, “Oooh! Cute kitty!” Then I realized it ain’t no kitty. Not that a bobcat is going to bother me.
In fact, very little bothers you. The only constants are birdsong and the periodic waves of sound made by the wind in the pines. To me it sounds like the booming surf, miles away. It is soothing, and helps me understand why some people love the mountains more than the sea.
And then, each day, something stirs within you that says it’s time to go. You find your focus waning, or, on good days, your pack full. On one such day last week, I had more than $400 worth of porcini in my knapsack. I drove straight home with them, because if I stopped somewhere I’d surely draw suspicion: I couldn’t wipe that shit-eating grin off my face, and people would think I was either high or had gotten away with something illicit.
Back home, the sorting begins. One pile, those porcini with pores turning a yellowy-green, goes into the dryer pile. I remove the pores and dry them separately; they get ground into porcini powder. The rest of those mushrooms go into my dehydrator, which, after a day at 95 degrees, leaves them parched and white. They are the bones of the porcini. Tasty, tasty bones.
A second pile are the picklers. My favorite way to preserve porcini is to make marinated porcini, based off a technique I learned in the excellent book My Calabria. There is no better way to prolong your enjoyment of this mushroom.
In the final, smallest pile go the buttons, the porcini so beautiful you would go to hell if you did not eat them fresh. These find their way into into all sorts of dishes, from porcini risotto, to meatballs to porcini-venison sausage to just simply grilled and enjoyed with olive oil and a squirt of lemon.
We’ve been eating a lot of porcini buttons lately. And when the last bite is gone, the last glass of wine empty, I go to sleep. In the deep of the night, I dream of the forest, and the king.