Imagine a land where oyster mushrooms materialize overnight, fanning off the trunks of towering redwoods like lacy fins. Picture a dank forest where chanterelles, golden as Koi fish, hide under a blanket of loose topsoil. Envision emerald hills carpeted with vineyards and ornamented by fig trees dripping with ripe fruit. In your mind's eye, follow a winding road flattened long ago by the hooves of animals and European settlers, a road that coils over ridges and through valleys, converging with the sparkling Navarro river as it empties into the roaring Pacific, a bath of sea foam.
This place may sound like a storybook setting, but it exists. About three hours’ north by car from San Francisco, Mendocino County, Calif., curls up against the Pacific, beautiful beyond words. My husband and I escaped from Los Angeles to visit this fairytale destination during the Mendocino Wine and Mushroom Fest, which kicks off the first weekend of November and stretches on for a season of events. During this magical time, fall rains rouse more than 3,000 mushroom varieties, many of them edible. Here’s a taste of our experience:
Driving north from where we landed at a small airport in Santa Rosa, Calif., we wound our way through the Anderson Valley wine region, through a Redwood forest so thick that the sunlight infiltrated in visible rays though the trees.
The first stop on our culinary adventure was Foursight Wines, a family owned and operated vineyard in Anderson Valley that practices under the philosophy that “nature is the greatest winemaker,” using only wild yeasts that are native to their vineyard site. Inside Foursight’s cozy tasting room, we talked with founders Bill and Kristy Charles (father and daughter), who poured us tastes of their wines and fed us tasty marinated mushrooms and mushroom and almond pate prepared by Nancy Charles, Kristy’s mom. Kristy explained that Foursight's wines were entirely vegan, using, when necessary, a veg-friendly fining agent derived from clay rather than fish or gelatin. After our tasting, Kristy led us out back where we plucked a quince from a gigantic bush and picked a few figs to taste right off the tree.
Back on the road, we headed for the North Coast of Mendocino, where we would check into the Stanford Inn By the Sea, a serene eco-lodge and retreat center that houses the world-renowned vegetarian-dining destination Ravens Restaurant. As we drove, my city mentality melted away and evaporated into mist.
When we arrived, Jeff Stanford, who runs the inn with his wife, Joan Stanford, gave us a tour of the property, including the inn’s organic gardens, which inspire the menu at the Ravens. We encountered army-green bunches of kale lined up like cadets in raised beds, posses of lamas mingling with wild turkeys, a berry garden, and two greenhouses reeking of herbs and the last of the year’s tomato harvest.
After our tour, we enjoyed “happy hour”—complimentary vegan desserts and tea—in the inn’s cozy living room, but it wasn’t until later that evening that we got our first taste of the local fungi. That evening at the Ravens, we savored a delectable, five-course early wild mushroom tasting menu. While each course was spectacular, my favorites included green tea-infused brown rice nigiri topped with grilled local Boletus; creamy polenta with grilled radicchio, broccoli spears, roasted local Boletus with beet balsamic jus; and candy cap ice cream with French pastry triangles and a berry coulis.
In early afternoon, we gathered at the inn with a group of about 20 for a workshop titled “From Forest to Table: A Wild Mushroom & Gastronomical Experience,” lead by Ryane Snow, PhD. The workshop included an introduction to local fungi, followed by a two-hour foraging walk in the woods.
On our walk, we scoured the forest floor, finding mushrooms of various shapes, sizes, and colors. The experience roused childhood memories of collecting seashells on a sandy beach, with the added hope of securing edible souvenirs. From time to time, as someone from the group plucked an interesting specimen, we’d gather around Rayne for an impromptu mushroom lesson. During the next two hours, we stuffed our tote bags with mushrooms.
After the walk, we enjoyed another five-course tasting menu, designed by Chef Barry Horton. While Barry offered a brief explanation of each course, there are no words to describe the creativity and culinary know-how that went into the dishes we tasted, each one an explosion of savory, local flavors. For two recipes from the menu, visit Barry’s blog.
Following lunch, we enlisted Ryane’s expertise identifying the mushrooms we had brought back with us. When it comes to wild mushrooms, the pendulum swings from those that are deadly to those whose medicinal properties are deemed life promoting.
Our “hunt” yielded two glorious, golden chanterelles and several King Boletus—commonly called porcini; however, there was something besides mushrooms that I took home with me that afternoon, a lesson that I will carry with me always. The feeling of finding my own food on a forest floor was one that directly connected me to nature in a way that scavenging the aisles of a supermarkets never could.
On the third day of our trip, we embarked on a “Mushroom Paddle” down the Noyo River in nearby Fort Bragg, Calif. We met our friendly guide, Cate Hawthorne, at Liquid Fusion Kayaking. A regular forager, Cate had yesterday’s fungi laid out for us to check out. We recognized a few of the specimens right away, and were eager to see them growing along the banks of the river.
During our gentle meander downstream, we passed a harbor seal, a variety of birds, and even a few cows sunbathing on the riverbanks. Cate was as relaxed in her surroundings as the river itself, and an unending source of local knowledge. At one point, she used her paddle to scoop up some sea palm adrift in the current. She explained that it was edible, and very tasty! I was so intoxicated by the sights and sounds of wildlife along the river, that I practically forgot to keep my eyes out for mushrooms. Then, out of nowhere, my husband spotted a handsome King Boletus popping his head out over the riverbank. We paddled our kayak over to pose below it and Cate took our photograph. On our way back, we saw clusters of oyster mushrooms growing off a fallen tree trunk. We took a few more photos as keepsakes, but left the edible treasures behind.
Before heading back to the airport, we had one last stop: lunch at Living Light Café and Cuisine-To-Go on main street in Fort Bragg. There, we met Chef Cherie Soria and her husband, Dan Ladermann, who gave us a tour of the Living Light Culinary Arts Institute, a world-renowned culinary school associated with the café that offers classes in gourmet raw and vegan cuisine. I was awed by the refrigerator-sized dehydrator stacked with trays of raw granola and the half dozen or so super-sized sprouting jars brimming with life. We spent some time browsing the aisles of the Living Light Marketplace, an all-things-raw-foodie store attached to the café where we picked up a copy of Cherie's latest book The Raw Food Revolution Diet. But what made the most lasting impression was the gourmet creations Cherie packed up for us to go, including Sesame Sea Palm and Cucumber Salad (featuring the local seaweed we saw on our kayaking adventure), a "Not Tuna" Sandwich on Onion Caraway Bread with Cashew Dijonaise, and "Pumpkin" Pie with Pecan Raisin Crust.
By the time we arrived at the airport, we didn’t want to leave. I guess that’s how you know you’ll be back someplace sometime soon.
For more on the Stanford Inn By the Sea, stay tuned for the May/June 2010 issue of Vegetarian Times.
For information on visiting Mendocino and/or experiencing the Mendocino Wine and Mushroom Fest, visit www.gomendo.com.
To see more pics from Mendocino, Calif. check out the album titled Magical Mendocino on Vegetarian Times’s Facebook page.