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Food Tales

A Vegetarian Hunts the California Woods

by Andrew Nimmo

Surprisingly meaty. Photo by Andrew Nimmo.

BERKELEY, California – Since I moved to Berkeley two years ago, I've gone a little crazy foraging wild foods. I don't know if they are any more abundant here than elsewhere; these days I can spot delicious drifters like mustard greens, fennel, nasturtiums, and dandelions in vacant lots pretty much anywhere I go. Northern California has really heightened my sense of my surroundings. 

Maybe it's because here, even a vegetarian can hunt year-round. There's no frost, and winter is in some ways greener than summer. The rainy season even whets my appetite, because that's the cue that the forests will soon erupt with the best game: Elusive as deer, beautiful as wild turkeys, seasonal as migratory birds. Wild mushrooms!

I'm only beginning to learn to find them, by observing their schedules and the company they keep. I’ll find golden chanterelles, for example, under live oaks and Douglas firs on Point Reyes. Candy caps and porcini are tight with pines — and seemingly like the hilltops near Oakland. But there is a lot to discover. Last week, I got curious about a bunch of burrows beneath a Douglas fir, and looked blankly until I noticed a half-eaten, potato-like nugget sitting right in front of me on the needles. You'd know it immediately by the smell — white truffle! A wood rat, whose exotic lunch I'd interrupted, was glaring at me from the tree above.

Becoming aware of all the hidden relationships in the landscape makes foraging feel a lot like getting to know a new city. You feel like you're only going to find the good spots after you get to know the locals and their hangouts. My most reliable guides, so far, are the wood rats. Maybe I watched Ratatouille too many times, but they seem to have refined taste. If there’s a good cache of chanterelles, then there’s bound to be a critter lodge nearby, and it always seems as if they are staking out the claim. I keep a sharp eye out for these camouflaged rat-taverns. They're clues leading me to the good stuff.

But when you're new in town, beware the bad tip. Mushrooms are obviously a dangerous game and demand close observation — the toxic ones are the first ones I studied. Delicious edibles rely on their admirers to help spread their spores. Emetic (or poisonous) mushrooms have a different strategy. They'd like you to spread their spores by ingesting and then expelling them (yup, puking) a little ways down the road. Fortunately, only three species in California are capable of serving you a Last Supper, and they're pretty distinctive.

Strangely, one of the most delicious mushrooms that grows in coastal California — the crisp, almost shrimpy tasting Springtime Amanita — is, under certain tempting conditions, a dead ringer for its cousin, the Death Cap Amanita. The taste test, pretty reliable for non-deadly mushrooms, won't help. Reportedly, the Death Cap is just as delicate and delicious as the Springtime. So while I've always got my guidebook (David Arora's hilarious All That the Rain Promises, and More!) it's also been key to meet up regularly with other mushroomers. Serious mycologists can help you understand how to ID what you're finding and why you're finding it.

That's why I'm taking my time with the hunt.

FOR YOUR BEDSIDE TABLE

All That the Rain Promises, and More, David Arora

BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE

24 Hours in Berkeley's Gourmet Ghetto
A Chef's Tour of San Francisco, Marin, and Sonoma

Andrew is a writer living in Berkeley, California. He travels for the hangouts.

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