From golden chanterelles to honeycomb morels, mushrooms are out of the dark.
Americans used to think a mushroom was something you kicked out of the lawn," says Eric Schramm, whose company, Mendocino Mushrooms, distributes mushrooms to fine restaurants and markets in the United States and Europe. Indeed, when I was growing up in the 1950s, the only mushrooms that appeared on our dinner table were the bland tidbits that came from canned cream of mushroom soup.
But the scene has changed dramatically over the years as well-traveled Americans developed the same fervor—and trust—for wild mushrooms as Europeans and Asians, who have a heritage of picking, cooking, and drying mushrooms.
Even 10 years ago, "people didn't know a chanterelle from a turnip," says another mushroom entrepreneur, Connie Green, whose Napa-based company, Wine Forest, delivers some 45,000 pounds a year of wild and cultivated mushrooms to the best restaurants in the Bay Area.
With the American palate more venturesome than ever, savvy diners even request their favorite mushroom by name. Jack Czarnecki, owner of the Joel Palmer House in Oregon's Willamette Valley, says, "I have a short list of customers who want to be called when I bring in a batch of puff balls [a fleeting wild mushroom]."
Robust porcini, buttery chanterelles, seafood-tasty oysters, fragrant shiitakes, hint-of-maple candy caps, and trufflelike black trumpets are some of the once-exotic specimens that can add distinction to dishes from pasta and seafood to game and fowl. With flavors that range from earthy to sweet, and the ability to stand alone or soak up garlicky or wine-rich sauces, mushrooms add a delectable spectrum of perfume and texture. Few other vegetables or aromatics can infuse foods with such an array of flavors—smoky, woodsy, fruity, beefy.
About 80 percent of the country's wild mushrooms come from national forest lands, with a large share coming from forests in the West—from Northern California up to the Yukon. Schramm's company processes up to 60,000 pounds of mushrooms a year from Mendocino County alone.
Fall and winter are peak seasons for mushrooms in the West and a good time to find a variety of them at market and on restaurant menus. Our seasonal downpours encourage the fruiting bodies of wild mushrooms to burst forth from field, forest, meadow, woods, along coastal wilderness—just about anywhere the spores have drifted and taken hold. Mushrooms lie dormant throughout the dry weather as mycelium. This microscopic form responds to the rains, feeding and fattening on earth's organic matter until a cap poised sumptuously on a stalk pokes above ground.
From the exquisitely sculpted chanterelle to the grotesquely misshapen oyster, the caps may resemble bulbs, umbrellas, cones, globes, bowls, or trumpets.
Those of us who enjoy a walk in the woods are sure to stumble upon the fancifully twisted and gnarled forms of fungi. But beware: Unless you're an experienced mycologist, you're best advised to leave them for the next passerby to admire. Though it's true that only five or six of the several thousand species of fungi that North America is host to are deadly, there are many mushrooms that can make you ill. And some highly toxic ones resemble the delicious edible ones. Only the trained expert (see "Mycologically Speaking," page 70) with a proven track record should ever forage for wild mushrooms to eat. The rest of us should stick to our local farmers' markets. Stores such as the Berkeley Bowl and the Oakville markets and upscale grocery chains like Andronico's, Whole Foods, and Real Foods may carry a variety of wild and cultivated mushrooms year-round.In addition to some 25 edible varieties that are foraged from the woods, a dozen or so mushrooms can be cultivated from spores. That's why you can find species such as the shiitake, oyster, and portobello (a meatier, overgrown button mushroom) year-round.
Most any fine restaurant is a good place to forage for mushroom dishes. Wine Forest's chanterelles, hens of the woods, oysters, and porcini grace the menus of such high-profile restaurants as Yountville's French Laundry and San Francisco's Lulu's, Postrio (where sautéed morels are topped with a poached quail egg), Hawthorne Lane (where a wild mushroom medley elevates stuffed chicken above the ordinary), and Masa's (where maitake add yet another dimension to briny-sweet roasted langoustines).
Monterey TV chef Joe Pisto translates his craving for candy caps into pasta dishes prepared with veal stock and bacon (the flavors work nicely off each other, he says) and even into a caramel sauce for bread pudding. Although Pisto's restaurants—the Whaling Station, Dominico's on the Wharf, Abalonetti, and Paradiso on Cannery Row—are known for their seafood, Pisto searches the world for mushrooms and truffles to feature on his TV show, Monterey Cooking Pisto Style.
Rosemary Campiformio, chef and co-owner of St. Orre's in Gualala on the Mendocino Coast, changes her menu frequently, but mushrooms are a staple on it. An appetizer favorite is a creamy-textured garlic flan dotted with a combination of wild mushrooms. Her savory tart combines the contrasting flavors and textures of porcini, oyster, black chante-relles, and shiitake. She includes candy caps, for their sweet, maple flavor, in a rich and custardy bread pudding.
What to do if a forager you trust shares his or her windfall of wild fungi this season? Not too much, says Czarnecki, who is the author of A Cook's Book of Mushrooms, a James Beard Award nominee. His general rule is to bring out their natural flavors by sprinkling the mushrooms with the "holy trinity" of salt, soy sauce, and a pinch of sugar before sautéing or roasting them. After all, you don't have to try too hard to bring out the flavor of a food that isn't the least bit timid.
Here are a few mushrooms, some more common than others, getting widespread culinary respect:
Black trumpet (Craterellus cornucopioides) A chanterelle with slim dark stem and tulip- or trumpet-like cap.
Candy cap (Lactarius fragilis) A small mushroom found mainly in the West with golden to reddish-brown caps and a slightly sweet, maple flavor that benefits desserts.
Chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius) Also known as girolle or pfifferling, it has golden ruffles that flare upwardly along the stem like a tulip or trumpet.
Maitake (Grifola frondosa) Also known as hen of the woods, these are beautiful classic-shaped, gray-brown mushrooms with an earthy flavor.
Matsutake (Tricholoma magnivelare) A white to yellowish gilled mushroom with brown fibrils and cinnamonlike spicy pungency that is prized by the Japanese.
Morel (Morchella esculenta) Light green to black, with a honeycomb cap (a "peach pit on a stem," says Eric Schramm), these coveted mushrooms thrive where there have been forest fires, thus their affinity for smoky flavors.
Oyster (Pleurotus ostreatus) There are many varieties of this multilayered mushroom named for its oysterlike shape. One is the king, which has a texture that is scalloplike. The cultivated blue is almost purple and the golden has a sweet nutty flavor.
Porcini (Boletus edulis) Also known as cèpe (French), steinpilz (German), or gamboni (Mendocino County), the porcini has a fleshy cap and stem with a spongy layer instead of gills.
Portobello (Agaricus bisporus) Found all over the country, these trendy giants (with a name developed by marketing folks) are not wild, but are mature cremini (a darker-capped version of the white button) that are allowed to grow longer and develop their meaty texture and large size.
Shiitake (Lentinus edodes) Parasol-shaped, this mushroom, long popular in Asian cuisine, has a smooth, dark brown cap with gills and a tough stem.
Here are some real and virtual places to search for mushroom experts:
- The Mycological Society of San Francisco, (415) 759-0495; www.mssf.org  links to the North American Mycological Societies' homepage
- Mendocino Wine & Mushroom Fest, November 8-19; (866) 466-3636; www.gomendo.com 
- San Francisco Fungus Fair, December 9-10; (415) 759-0495
- Santa Cruz Fungus Fair, January 12-14; (831) 684-2275.
Mushrooms and potatoes, peasant style
Joe Pisto, author of Cooking with Mushrooms, incorporates the mushroom's flavor and texture into this simple dish.
⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil
1-2 teaspoons dried oregano or 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh oregano
1½ pounds Yukon gold potatoes, sliced thinly
6-12 whole mushrooms such as portobello, porcini, oyster ¼ cup dry white wine
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped ½ cup chopped parsley
salt and ground black pepper
Heidi Haughy Cusick is the author of eight cookbooks, including Soul and Spice.
Photography by Leigh Beisch
This article was first published in November 2000. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.