.Mushroom Season Kicks Off In Santa Cruz

Fungiphilia! When I saw that the intrepid hunter/gatherers of Ocean2Table were offering fresh harvested porcinis, I was transported to a visit to Rome in October. Every menu offered some mouth-watering version of fresh porcinis, and we ate our fill. During prime mushroom seasons past here in Santa Cruz, Paul Geise of Ristorante Avanti used to come to the tables with a basket of enormous fresh porcinis (Boletus edulis, boletes, also known as cèpe in French, Steinpilz in German) to tempt us. Porcini risotto remains one of the top dishes in my culinary memory.

Lately I’ve noticed persistent foragers in the oak groves near the UCSC campus. Obviously looking for mushrooms, mostly harvesting chanterelles. The Ocean2Table folks currently carry fresh porcinis found in Monterey County by Jason Collins; the earthy umami flavor and texture make these babies justly prized. Porcinis sauteed in garlic and olive oil over pasta create an unforgettable flavor.

A local expert and veteran fungiphile shed some light on why our local mushrooms are springing up just now, in January. “Mushrooms have a mind of their own,” he reminded me. “The only reliable rule is that they never come up where and when you expect them. A January first bloom is not surprising.”

Chanterelles are influenced not only by the current year’s heavy rains, but also by the preceding years of drought, he contends. “It’s also possible that dry weather and cold temps for a month after the heavy rains in fall delayed the bloom.” The longtime forager told me that “chanterelles typically would show up in fall, a couple of weeks after the first serious rains. I took bucket loads to a Thanksgiving feast at Tandy Beal’s about 10 years ago.”

There can also be a spring bloom, though not as vigorous. “The heavy rains of decades ago would produce continuous blooms for months on end—of big, wet, soggy, mud-splattered, delicious ’shrooms, an endless bonanza if you were willing to spend the time in the kitchen cleaning them and reducing the liquor.”

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Around here, they tend to be found in oaky meadow margins that get at least “a kiss of sun. This might be a good year for morels in the wildfire burn areas come spring,” he predicts. “Conversely, alas, the destruction of pine-forest by fire and disease is bad news for the porcini that inhabit almost exclusively old pine forests.”

After several decades of hunting in our neck of the woods, this forager believes that “climate change is the likely culprit for noticeable changes in the quantity of mushrooms and changes in the timing, which is even less predictable than ever.” If by now you’re salivating for some plump locally-harvested porcinis, ($18/.5lbs), then head over to the Ocean2table website and place your order.

Spade and PlowAt Mentone, Jan. 19 and 20 (two seatings each night) features a prix fixe menu of harvests from the renowned Santa Clara County organic farm Spade and Plow, with optional wine pairings. The special menu from the kitchen of Mentone includes scallop crudo with yuzu citrus and Calabrian kosho sauce made from chilis fermented with salt and yuzu peel. Following a root veggie carpaccio will be cioppino of crab, black cod, mussels and torn bread, as well as rack of lamb with artichoke, farro and sun-dried tomato. Dessert is still in the conceptual stages. Price is $115 per person, a bargain, plus additional wine pairings for $45 selected by ace sommelier Alyssa Twelker. A delicious way to work your way through January. Mentone, in Aptos Village. Book your spot now.

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