“Let’s just swing by this spot. It might be too early, but you never know.”
I pulled over to the side of a winding mountain road in California’s Sierra Nevada, across from a gentle slope dotted with mixed pines, firs and cedars. Holly and I were doing our Quarantine Thing, which is to say getting out into the mountains in search of, well, whatever.
This being springtime, we had mushrooms on our mind. Spring is when the Sierra gets its flushes of morels, spring king boletes, and what we call “verns,” an edible amanita species vaguely similar to the famous Italian Caesar’s amanita.
We wandered through the park-like setting. Big trees, lots of pine duff, not a ton of underbrush. Good habitat. Eyes scanning for “shrumps,” the telltale swelling of a growing mushroom under the mat of needles. There are lots of shrumps, but a true “mushrump” will often be perfectly round, and the needles will whorl, just a bit.
Faked out by buried pinecones over and over. Damn. Must be too early. Then I saw a ‘rump prettier than the rest. A perfectly round bump. I carefully lifted the needles and there was the prize: A tiny, reddish brown hamburger bun. The cap of Boletus rex-veris, the spring porcini. This one was very young, and hard as a rock. Perfect.
“Got one!” But it was only the one. After the adrenaline rush of that first porcino faded, about 40 minutes later, we gave up and went home. It was, indeed, too early.
But, because of Miss ‘Rona, neither of us had any travel plans in the foreseeable future. And mushroom hunting is about as perfect a pandemic activity as there is, at least for a person who loves the outdoors. We would return.
This has been one key positive in an unrelentingly depressing period in our collective history: Our wings clipped, many of us have hunkered closer to home, opening or reopening outdoor opportunities we’d either never knew existed, or, as in my case, had left behind.
Most of us are on a journey. Many journeys, really, but the one I am referring to is our outdoors journey. How we progress as hunters, anglers, gatherers and cooks. Mine has taken me far beyond the close confines of my little stretch of Northern California. I’ve now fished, foraged or hunted in 46 states and five Canadian provinces.
I feel lucky to have been able to do all this, and I am constantly seeking new and fun things to do in this wild world we live in. The downside is that I have, at times, forsaken the familiar. Been there done that. This thing that we’re all in has forced me back to my old rhythm, from a time when I had a day job and this website was not yet born.
It is the very end of May as I write this. Here, near Sacramento, that means shad and stripers in the rivers. Elderflowers, young wild fennel and loquats, with mulberries and wild plums not far behind. Halibut in the San Francisco Bay, salmon starting offshore. Rockfish and lingcod on the bottom. Trout in the High Country. Pigs getting fat on the final green of the year.
And, of course, mushrooms. Which leads me back to my story.
Because all my travel plans have been cancelled, and because only now are charter boats beginning to run, mushrooms have become our main focus. So I watch the temperatures and rainfall in the mountains, and can return to a spot over and over in the hopes of catching the flush just right.
I reckoned a week might help. It did, as Holly and I found a few pounds of porcini, only a few of which were even partially grown. Still pretty early. But now it was hot, close to 100°F down at sea level, and up to 80°F up at 5000 feet. Porcini happen to grow very quickly, and as they do, their tissues soften and are more easily penetrated by bugs. Especially in the heat.
A couple days later, we headed back up. This time to different spots, but alas, no luck. Holly said she wanted to check our original spot again. Couldn’t hurt, even after only two days. And sure enough, there was a glimmer. We collected another couple pounds, all tiny buttons. It was happening!
It was still hot. Beastly hot, as in 104°F at home. My garden was groaning. But that meant up the hill, the porcini were growing. It was midweek, and Holly had to work. But my friend Joe could take a morning off. Our original intention was to hike into an old burn to look for morels. I thought it couldn’t hurt to check that porcini spot one more time.
Mushrumps everywhere! It was a bonanza. Huge lines of perfect button porcini all over the place. Each one heavy for its size, like the best orange. That weight in your hand triggers something in your brain, the way a clam does, or gold. It feels like money.
That could literally be true, since these porcini can sell for $40 a pound, but I have no intention of selling them. They are… my precious…
You want another and another, and then another, just to feed the dopamine rush of spotting a hidden mushroom, revealing it from under the duff, seeing its glorious perfection, carefully removing it, brushing and shaving off the dirt, and reveling in its cool, smooth, weighty perfection, resting in your palm.
After just two hours, we’d picked close to 40 pounds between the two of us. Now I know some of you have had better days than this, but I haven’t. It was the single best porcini hunt of my life, and I am sorry that Holly had to miss it; she is, too, obviously.
And it only happened because Miss ‘Rona forced me to slow down and stick close to home. There is a lesson in all this.
I’d known about this porcini spot for more than a decade. I’d had good hunts there before. Nothing like this though. Usually I was away when the big flush hit. But with opportunities stripped away because of the pandemic, I was able to focus on one still open to me. And it worked.
The Quarantine Chronicles
Edible Weeds: Eat Your Lawn
The best place to find edible wild plants might be no further than your own yard.
Making Stew with What You Have
Sometimes you have to make substitutions these days, and there is no better place to freestyle than in the stewpot. Here’s how to build a better stew.
Black Mood, Red Sauce
It hasn’t all been sunshine and light these days. Our little family suffered a death recently, and its inevitability turned me inward, to that dish that gives me solace when all around me is black.
Stretching in Place
Quarantine has been a great opportunity to stretch yourself mentally, physically, and culinarily. Here are some ideas for you.
Time and Place on a Plate
When you can get out into the world again, do so with new eyes. Seeing what is around you when you hunt, fish or gather can inspire beauty on the plate.
Wasting Less, Living Better
Being thrifty in these times is a necessity. Here’s how I stretch and innovate in the kitchen using what I have handy.
Support the Volunteers
In the garden, which for many of us is a place of solace these days, you will often find useful plants just growing, here and there. Consider supporting them.
How to Salvage Freezer Burned Meat
When you can’t go to the store that often, you look into the depths of your freezer. Sometimes you don’t like what you see. Here’s how to deal with ancient frozen bits.
Dinner for Two
Cooking nearly every meal for the both of us, stuck at home, has reminded me how important it is to be able to cook for someone I love.
David Thompson says
I remember finding my first morels out by where we buried our kitchen garbage. I was 7 and I brought a few in to my mother and she said, where did you find those. We picked a lot and she said, go bury the garbage over there. Sauteed chicken, butchered that day and fresh morels, wild asparagus and new potatoes. Does life get any better? I don’t think so. The chickens were a little small, just 7 weeks, but tasty. Still one of the best meals ever. Fiddle-head ferns and oysters and Linguine was a close second. The bushel of mussels out of the Severn River and we only picked the big ones. Sweet corn, and mussels, no potatoes, no sausage, why bother. A full bushel for 11 people and we ate all the corn, 24 ears, and all the mussels. Shells go back into the river for oysters to latch onto. Gluttony at its finest. Now that’s eating nature’s best.
Inspiring story. Mushroom foraging is a new field for me – well., moving across continents made me start almost from zero in knowledge about which ones to pick and which ones not to. Stories like this makes me want to pick up the habit again and ready up and study them anew
Lydia Holland says
Fantastic article. I went hunting for the first time this year and stumbled upon a porcini while searching for morels. Needless to say, I’m hooked. Reading this article made me want to drop everything, jump in my car, and head back up the hill. Thank you!
Nice write up Hank. The traditions we hold dear are great ways to relax and distract from the 2020 dumpster fire. Here’s to more days in the woods and an the water! Peace
Jeffrey William Loomans says
Awesome. Pizzeria Delfina did Porcini Pie week this past week, sure sign of late spring/early summer. Any idea if we have a domestic herb similar to piemontese Nepitalla that complements the shrooms as well?
My backyard wild plums are coming in, so with the alchohol ferments your post helped me develop a few weeks ago, looking forward to plum wine, sour plum jam, and eating whatever I can out of hand before the parrots nab them all. They crack into the pits and leave pure plum goodness rotting all over my yard, darn birds. Too cute to get mad at though!
I hope to post on my own site a time series of snapshots of the process for building a high quality, higher alchohol-tolerant strain of yeasts/bacteria for berry and stone fruit fermenatation today or tomorrow, depending on work demands. Thanks again for your elderflower and freezer-berry guidance.
Sean Baker says
That is so incredible! I cannot wait to find my next batch of edible mushrooms ?. I was so afraid to pick my first patch of chanterelles I found not sure what they were. Hoping to see some more this moose hunt and bring my ID book to nab so goodies to go with possible venison. ? Amazing work on these Porcini Hank. Thats awesome you know how to track their growth. Can’t wait to learn my local area so well too and hope to find my first Porcini to share a pic with you. Thanks for putting me on one of my greatest paths Hank, it means mountains. ??
Allan Risk says
Nice! So what do you do with 40 pounds of mushrooms?
Hank Shaw says
Allan: Eat them. Perfect ones will keep in the fridge for more than a week. You dry the not so perfect ones. I also preserve a lot in oil, and the process for doing so removes many pounds’ worth of water weight from the mushrooms. It’s really not as much as it seems.
Philip Smith says
I read and enjoy your blog and thought it about time I pinged you to say as much am a corporate chef by trade, mushroomer/ forager, fly fisherman for fun and Vermont transplant-currently living in Switzerland. This year I missed morels in March as the lockdown descended here- it is too warm now but have had fun with ramps and elderflower so far, in next week or so walnuts- I am going to try to make “caper berry” type pickles with young, preshell walnuts and will also pickle wild cherries, …… lots more here soon too.