too many words by laura lemay

into the woods (a mushroom story)

There could be monsters in the woods, for all I know.

I don’t go up into the woods behind the house that often. Although the woods are technically part of our property, there’s not a lot you can do with land that’s covered with trees, and after I explored the woods the first few years we lived up here I figured I had it covered. Woods don’t change much.

There are old roads up through the woods, and the ruins of old farm buildings, and our water tank is up there. There’s an old earth dam that some previous owner put up in a gulley to catch water from a spring. We hiked up through the top of our property once, up the hill through the land above us, and then trespassed into the property on the top of the ridge owned by a semi-well-known silicon valley CEO. His property was really well-kept: cleared and mowed and planted with wine grapes and fruit trees. It’s very idyllic, very country tuscan. Ours is just woods.

A bunch of years ago in January I was walking up the road to the dam and I discovered mushrooms. There are mushrooms all over the place, of course, but these were bright yellow mushrooms and they looked an awful lot like the chanterelles I was spending $15 a pound at the local market for.

Coincidentally that weekend was The Santa Cruz Fungus Federation’s annual event, the Santa Cruz Fungus Fair. So I drove my mushroom down to the coast and handed it over at the mushroom identity booth and the mushroom guy handed it right back with a bored expression. “Its a chanterelle,” he said.

Chanterelles are a wild mushroom with a mild but earthy taste. They’re totally yummy. Unfortunately they’re also incredibly expensive in the markets because they cannot be commerciall grown; they can only be hunted. I am nuts for wild mushrooms, so finding a chanterelle in my own backyard consumed me with joy.

Wild mushroom hunting, however, is fraught with peril. One mushroom tastes wonderful with leeks and a nice cream sauce; the one right next to it that looks just like it makes you see giant talking alligators in raincoats just before it liquifies all your internal organs. Its an adventure. You need to read up.

Fortunately, chanterelles are really easy to identify as far as wild mushrooms go. There’s only a few other mushrooms it can be mistaken for, and chanterelles have kind of unique stems and gills that once you know what to look for are easy to spot. Plus the bad ones glow in the dark. I’m not going to touch the umteen number of identical-looking agaricus (button) mushrooms, nearly all of which are poisonous, but I feel pretty confident about my ability to recognize a chanterelle.

I’ve hunted for chanterelles on the road in the woods every year after that first time, with varying success. It seems they need just the right kind of damp and temperature to grow right. Some years I get a couple; most years I get none. Sometimes I get to them and they’re too old or kind of slimy or some other critter got to them before me. It takes work, mushroom hunting. But usually I find enough for a nice plate of pasta.

Its been a really wet year this year, and there have been mushrooms everywhere, all over the lawn and in places they don’t belong, like on the roof and on the porch. So I’ve been spending more time up in the woods on the road to the dam, keeping my eye out for flashes of yellow.

On monday, it paid off. I found a small patch about halfway up the road, two shrooms, and picked them. Two shrooms is not a meal; it might make a very small dish of pasta. And then I spotted it: it was huge. A big bunch of chanterelles as big as my head. There were six huge mushrooms in the bunch, and they were new, and perfect, and heavy. I had walked up the hill without a basket; I had to take off my jacket to carry them all home. I had hit the chanterelle motherlode.

I got home and after cleaning I found I had five pounds of chanterelles. Its not often you find $75 lying around in the back yard. Yum yum yum yum yum. I’m not even sure what to do with this abundance of mycological splendor. I think I’m going to need more heavy cream.

So far no monsters in the woods. Just food. That’s OK.