Mushroom season — time to unleash your inner hunter-gatherer
Mushroom hunting is my favorite outdoor sport, and nowhere in northern California are there better hunting grounds than in Mendocino County.
Starting in late October, after the first fall rains and continuing into February, the forests of Mendocino County are blanketed with mushrooms. Black and golden chanterelles push their way up through tan oak leaves, heavy-headed, big-stemmed porcini pop up from beneath the pine trees, hedge-hog and candy cap mushrooms are scattered across the mossy forest floor. Fallen trees and rotting tree trunks sport plump oyster mushrooms and reddish colored, fan shaped Reishi. Everywhere you look, there are mushrooms in Mendocino this time of year.
Mendocino County knows that it has a major culinary attraction with its fungi, and with its celebrated wines and beers, so it’s not surprising that the county pulls together to put on an annual Mendocino County Mushroom, Wine & Beer Festival. This year it is from Nov. 6-15.
I’ve been several times. Each year it gets better and better, and this year promises to be the best yet. Part of what I like about this festival, and about Mendocino in general, is the mix of hands-on adventures, educational opportunities, and lots of food, wine and beer, all set in one of the most beautiful and unspoiled areas of California.
Wild mushrooms evoke both fascination and fear. For our ancestors, hunters and gatherers of old, wild edibles, including mushrooms were an essential part of the diet. Today, however, most of us would be apprehensive about wild gathering.
During the Mendocino festival there are daily opportunities to take a mushroom foraging tour with Adrienne Long, a local expert on wild foods of the region, who will reveal some of her favorite forest spots, tell you which mushrooms you are looking at that are edible, and which ones are not. She’ll show you the ones that are valued for their medicinal qualities, and the ones that are the most culinarily desirable.
Mushroom hunting permits may be required, depending upon location. Mushroom walks and workshops are also available through the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens. And a caveat here — don’t venture picking mushrooms on your own unless you are an expert, or you are with one.
Other hands-on experiences during the festival include mushroom cooking classes, workshops on medicinal mushrooms, horseback mushroom hunting, and guided walks in various regions of Mendocino Country, some on winery grounds. The famous Skunk Train, which takes riders deep into the redwood forest, crossing 30 trestles to take a look at land unchanged since the late 1800s, will have frequent departures from both Willits and Fort Bragg. There is even a meet-the-authors cookbook signing and sampling, featuring “The Wild Mushroom Cookbook – recipes from Mendocino.”
Mushrooms, wine and beer opportunities are abundant. Winemaker-Mushroom lunches and dinners abound, and you can take your choice of venues in Mendocino, Philo, Ukiah and Hopland. Special mushroom focus, multi-course meals are paired with wines, and often the winemaker will be there to talk about the wines and join in the meal.
Restaurants throughout the county will offer special mushroom dishes on their menus. At Little River Inn, for example, expect to find Mushroom Cappuccino, a frothy, rich soup made with five different mushrooms, including chanterelles, and finished with porcini powder. Chef Marc Dym says the soup will be on the menu daily throughout the festival. Many of the wineries get into the mushroom mania too, offering homemade mushroom appetizers in their tasting rooms along with tours and wine tastings.
The Mendocino Coast is one of the most beautiful stretches along the California’s coastline. The cliffs drop straight down into the Pacific Ocean and white water views dominate. The Navarro and Noyo Rivers pour down to meet the surf and redwoods and pines cling to the bluffs. The region’s hoteliers and innkeepers have made the most of the dramatic setting and the visitor would have a hard time finding a lodging that didn’t encompass the feeling of being somewhere special, of being at the edge of the continent.
Albion Inn and its restaurant, just north of where Highway 128 meets Highway 1, are perched on oceanside cliffs, with rooms and cottages facing the ocean. The venerable Mendocino Hotel stands on the headlands with a commanding view of the crashing surf. The 75-year old Little River Inn spreads across the flank of the hills along Highway 1, where 63 of its 66 rooms boast ocean vistas.
In Fort Bragg, the Harbor Inn is perched right above Noyo Harbor and from most rooms you can view the boats coming and going over the bar. Many of the counties lodgings are offering special discounts during the mushroom festival.
Whether you are a mushroom aficionado, a lover of good food, wine and beer, or simply intrigued by the glories of California’s north country and coastline, or all the above, the annual Mendocino County Mushroom, Wine and Beer Festival creates a perfect storm during the week of Nov. 6-15.
For more information, visit www.visitmendocino.com or call (866) 466-3636
Chicken Stuffed with Croutons and Wild Mushrooms with Juniper Sauce
This is one of my favorite dishes to make with wild mushrooms. Here, they are combined with homemade croutons, which keep their shape during cooking and absorb the flavor of the mushrooms without overpowering them, while the sauce gives another chance to show off the bounty of mushrooms. Juniper brings a hint of the forest. Although there are several steps involved, this is not a complicated dish to make to celebrate the season.
3 or 4 1-inch thick slices baguette, cut into 1-inch cubes, crust removed
¾ pound mixed mushrooms such as chanterelles, porcini, oyster or portabella
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons minced shallots
2 teaspoons freshly ground juniper berries
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
1 cup chicken broth
1 tablespoon minced fresh Italian parsley
4 pound chicken with giblets or substitute a chicken liver if giblets not available
1 tablespoon brandy
Preheat an oven to 400° F.
To make the croutons
On a baking sheet, place the bread cubes in a single layer and put them in the oven. Bake, turning once for about 15 minutes, or until toasted to a golden brown. Remove and set aside.
Reduce the oven to 350°F.
To make the stuffing
Finely chop the liver, heart,and gizzard. Set aside.
Make the mushrooms interesting looking by cutting some in half lengthwise, some in quarters, leaving some whole, depending upon size and shape. This is a dish that shows off the mushrooms, remember.
In a frying pan, heat the butter over medium heat. When it foams, add 2/3 of the mushrooms, reserving the rest for the final sauce. Add the shallots and sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon of the juniper and half the salt and pepper. Cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes, or until the mushrooms are cooked through and have begun to release their juices. Add 1/4 cup of the chicken broth, then pour the contents of the frying pan into a bowl. Add the croutons, another 1/2 teaspoon juniper, the thyme, and the parsley and the chopped giblets. Mix well.
Rub the chicken inside and out with the remaining salt and pepper. Pack the cavity snugly with the stuffing to nearly overflowing. Place the stuffed bird on a rack and roast for about 1 hour and 30 minutes, or until the juice runs clear when a knife is poked into the base of the thigh. Remove to a platter and loosely cover with aluminum foil.
To make the sauce
Pour off from the roasting pan all but about one tablespoon of the pan juices.
Put the roasting pan over medium heat and add the reserved mushroom slices, cooking them for two to three minutes, just enough to soften them. Remove the mushrooms and add the brandy, 1 teaspoon of ground juniper and about 1/4 cup of the chicken broth, scraping up the bits clinging to the roasting pan. Add the rest of the chicken broth and cook, stirring, one to two minutes to reduce the liquid and thicken the sauce. Return the mushrooms to the sauce and turn off the heat. Cover.
Carve the chicken and scoop the stuffing from the cavity. Serve with the stuffing alongside and spoon a little sauce over each serving. Serve any remaining sauce alongside. Serves 4 to 6
(Georgeanne Brennan is a James Beard winning cookbook author and owner of www.lavierustic.com, an on-line store. She lives and works in Winters, CA.)