The 37th Annual Santa Cruz Fungus Fair finds the food, fun and fascination in fungi
If I touch it am I going to die? This is the most frequently asked question every year at the Santa Cruz Fungus Fair. Luckily, it turns out the answer is no. Though Santa Cruz is home to two of the world’s deadliest mushrooms—the death cap (Amanita phalloides) and the destroying angel (Amanita ocreata), you would have to actually ingest them to die.
“There are a lot of mushrooms that can make you sick, but not many of them are fatal,” says Phil Carpenter, president of the Fungus Federation of Santa Cruz. Still, many species are edible—and tasty, he adds. Though Carpenter does collect edible local mushrooms for his table, he’s driven to search for different species of fungus for another reason. He calls it the treasure-hunt aspect.
“It’s the hunter-gatherer instinct,” says Carpenter. “People like me that are curious, trying to put a name to what they see.”
Whether you’d like to put a name to the strange fungi you find while walking through the woods, are interested in tasting some wild local mushroom varieties or simply want to learn more about these interesting life forms that seem to magically spring from the earth when the rains start to fall, the 37th Annual Santa Cruz Fungus Fair is the place to be Jan. 7-9.
Due to growing popularity among fungophiles in the region, fair organizers have decided to extend the fair to three days this year, adding a half-day on Friday in addition to the all-day Saturday and Sunday festivities.
Another attraction this year is the appearance of fungus icon David Arora, author of two of the most well-known mushroom field guides in the United States, “Mushrooms Demystified” and “All That the Rain Promises and More.” Originally from the Santa Cruz area, Arora founded the inaugural Santa Cruz Fungus Fair in 1975. He’ll give two different presentations on Saturday and Sunday, both titled “The Wheel of Fungi” (see scfungusfair.org for times and full schedule). Arora’s presentation will include an array of fungus facts as well as games with prizes. Always the mysterious mycologist, the only thing Arora will say about this event is, “Without giving too much away, I will be giving something away.”
There are a variety of other fun and educational talks and presentations at the fair in the Mushrooms 101 series. Topics include everything from “Intro to Wild and Edible Mushrooms” and “Medicinal Mushrooms” to “Who Gets Poisoned and Why.” There will also be a hands-on exploration area for kids with a treasure hunt, mushroom art projects, fungus face painting, clay mushroom building, storytelling and more.
One of the biggest draws every year is the giant life-size display of a demonstration forest with mushrooms.
“I recall the first fungus fair I went to,” says Jim Maley, publicist for the fair. “It’s like walking through a forest with a magnificent array of mushrooms. I thought, ‘Will I ever learn all these?’ Since then, I’ve learned about 30 edibles.”
Learning to identify mushrooms is an important component of the fair. All display specimens will be labeled with their name, the location they were found and whether they are poisonous or edible.
“You never know what’s going to come in,” says Carpenter. “Every year is different. The diversity around here is really great and everything’s exploding right now. It’s easy to walk into the woods and collect mushrooms for a great display. Last year we had over 250 species.”
A team of experts will be on hand throughout the festival to help people identify fungus they’ve collected and the public is encouraged to bring mushrooms of all varieties to the fair—though not in a plastic bag, says Marjorie Young, program coordinator. She recommends people bring their fungus collections in paper bags or wrapped in newspaper “so the mushrooms won’t turn to mush.”
Some of the local favorite edibles include chanterelles, porcinis, oyster mushrooms and candy caps. Rene Barone, co-chair for the fair, suggests that when trying a species of mushroom for the first time, people should sauté it in olive oil and nothing more than a little salt and pepper. That way, the flavors of the mushroom aren’t hidden by other ingredients. But one of the most exciting things about mushrooms as food is its versatility, she adds.
“You can use chanterelles in crepes, savory bread puddings, any egg or rice dish,” says Barone. “Porcinis are good as base for soup stocks. You can also dry them, grind them and roll any fish in the powder. I like porcinis with a nice, deep red wine.”
Though it’s possible to use mushrooms to compliment a dish, Carpenter prefers to “cook around the mushroom.” For example, a red sauce with garlic would mask the delicate flavor of chanterelles, whereas a strong-flavored mushroom like a porcini would stand up to a red sauce. He recommends a mild mushroom-cream sauce or soup to showcase the chanterelle flavor—and often coats tri-tip roast with powdered porcini.
As for Maley? He prefers candy cap gelato. Describing the flavor as maple-butterscotch, he says, “After eating it, this wonderful smell came out of my pores. It’s a make-believe smell.”
To expand your fungus repertoire beyond the typical white grocery store mushrooms, there will be a series of culinary demonstrations given by local fungus epicures. Featured chefs include Jozseph Schultz of India Joze in Santa Cruz, Damani Thomas of Oswald in Santa Cruz and Todd Spanier of King of Mushrooms, a retail business that supplies gourmet mushroom varieties to restaurants.
Whether you want to eat fungus, identify it or simply know a little more about this mysterious life form, Young says the joy is in the discovery.
“You’re walking around and there it is,” she says. “It’s really neat to find something in the woods you can take home and enjoy. There’s a Zen saying: It’s in the hunt, not in the find. Even the days you go out and don’t find a lot, you’ve still done something wonderful.”
The 37th Annual Santa Cruz Fungus Fair runs from 4 to 7 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 7, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, Jan. 8 and 9 at the Louden Nelson Community Center, 301 Center St., Santa Cruz. General admission, $7; seniors (60+)/students $5; kids under 12 free with adult admission; Friday admission is $5 for everyone. For more information, call 684-2275 or visit scfungusfair.org or fungusfed.org.