News of the Food
By Heather Irwin
I love the fall. It's my favorite time of year. The clarity of the light, the growing morning chill and the smell of wood smoke at night are evocative, bittersweet reminders that the green season is dying and the winter rains and cold are near. It's an ephemeral time of year that requires the full attention of your senses to make the most of, and food is a great way to do that. Pomegranates, apples and butternut squash are abundant. The local Dungeness crab season will start next month, a West Coast seasonal treat. Slow-braised meats and stews replace the barbecues of summer. Best of all, wild mushrooms have begun popping up in the woods and in local markets.
Wild mushrooms are the perfect metaphor for fall. Fallen leaves rot on the ground, providing nourishment for spring's new growth. Mushrooms are the fruit of this decay. Think of mushrooms as the apples of underground trees. These "trees" are called mycelium, a white, lacy-looking organism that grows through the earth, under fallen logs and the detritus of fallen leaves.
One of my favorite fall mushrooms is the elusive and expensive matsutake that grows in extreme Northern California and Southern Oregon. Also called a pine mushroom, it's beloved by chefs for its spicy, cinnamon-sweet flavor. In Japan, it's revered as a symbol of fertility, wealth and happiness. The best matsutakes haven't popped out of the ground, and it takes a keen eye to spot the slight bulge or crack in the pine duff that reveals the presence of a matsie below. Each fall, hundreds of itinerant mushroom foragers camp out in the woods and fan out in search of the matsutakes, a mushroom that's also called "white gold" because of the high prices it commands. Matsutakes usually retail for about $40 a pound. But that's nothing. The price for the mushrooms went to $600 a pound in 1996!
The cold weather and first rains also give rise to a host of delicious fungi like chanterelles, boletes, black trumpets and candy cap mushrooms. I'm looking forward to Mendocino's Wine and Mushroom Festival Nov. 10-15. Held in and near the storybook haven of Mendocino, the sixth annual event includes mushroom-cooking demonstrations, mushroom-gathering hikes, winetastings and winemaker dinners featuring mushroom-inspired meals. The dank woods of Northern California are a mushroom forager's paradise. (Warning: People die every year because they pick and eat wild mushrooms they think are edible. Don't eat any mushrooms that haven't been identified by an expert.) For more information on Mendocino's Wine and Mushroom Festival. go to www.gomendo.com/events/wineandmushroomfest.