Early returns aren’t promising, but there’s hope yet for porcini hunters
Every year at this time, the snowpack of the Cascades and Sierra foothills melts and the earth warms, and something marvelous happens underground: Vast networks of living filaments surge through the soil like electricity, building mass and gaining strength and—all at once, sometimes—sending an explosion of biomass upward into our midst like periscopes from another world.
But this year’s much-anticipated bloom of porcini mushrooms has been a lackluster event, according to experienced hunters who have been watching the forest floor of late. Eric Schramm, a mushroom wholesaler from Mendocino, relies heavily on the inland forests for his summer supply, but this year, he estimates, the harvest is at about 2 percent of normal.
“We have never had a year this bad in 100 years,” said Schramm, who sells mushrooms through his Mendocino Mushroom Co.
Nonetheless, the show went on over Memorial Day weekend in the town of McCloud, where throngs of visitors attended the seventh annual McCloud Mushroom, Music and Wine Faire. They listened to music, drank wine, attended mushroom seminars (hosted by Schramm, who cosponsors the festival), and ate mushrooms—and, as always, the main stars of the show were the gray and petite, wrinkly headed morel and the burly and brawny, brown-capped porcini. Though each is a culinary superstar, the latter is among the largest edible mushrooms, making it a particularly exciting one to hunt in the pine forests where it grows. The McCloud festival offers cash prizes each year for the largest mushrooms submitted by participants before the end of the weekend. While an 8-ounce morel took the $100 prize in its category, the prize-winning porcini weighed 2.66 pounds.
But they grow much larger. Most avid hunters have encountered 4- and 5-pound mushrooms (and I know a man who claims to have skirmished with a 14-pounder in the Sierras).
Sheer size aside, the charisma of the porcini—which includes several species of the Boletus genus—outweighs that of most other mushrooms. It frequently rises with shapely, feminine curves (picture a dainty cap perched upon a swan-like figurine stem) while, just as often, it pushes upward bearing brutish masculine features (say, a huge swollen cap studded over a grotesquely bulbous stem).
In the kitchen, the porcini is favored for its nutty, yeasty aroma and dense texture. In restaurants, chefs commonly prepare them in sauces to be served with meat or pasta. Other times, porcini steaks, sautéed until golden brown, command full attention as feature items.
But the most affordable and rewarding means of feasting during mushroom season is to hunt one’s own. Such outings can put heaps of beasts on the countertop while wine is poured, friends rounded up, and the barbecue stoked. But nobody without experience or a trustworthy guide should hunt mushrooms. While no deadly mushroom closely resembles the porcini, rookie hunters make deadly errors every year.
Beyond per-pound value and quantity, there is something else to be had by scouting the woods for fungi.
“Wild mushrooms are our last wild connection to our ancestral gathering heritage,” said Todd Spanier, a Bay Area mushroom vendor and self-titled King of Mushrooms. “It’s something a lot of us have lost, and people are craving that connection.”
Just how this porcini season will unravel is uncertain. Spanier, who cooked a pig over a spit on the McCloud plaza at the weekend’s festival, also hunted mushrooms before and after hours—and he says very few porcini were to be found.
But summer is weeks away and the shroom bloom, he says, could still happen.
“If it gets warm, and we keep getting moisture like we’ve been getting, we could still see a good late season,” Spanier said.
Schramm, too, believes it could still happen.
“The weather could go from cold to 90-degree days, and if it does the forest might just blow up.”