The Fungus Among Us 

Candy caps abound, chanterelles are scarce, and death caps lie in wait.

"I've gone to all my favorite chanterelle spots this year and haven't found anything," warns Jim Miller, a member of the Mycological Society of San Francisco and leader of a mushroom foray for beginners high in the Oakland hills. The forty people who have turned up on a cool Saturday morning collectively sigh -- most of us hoped to score a tidbit for lunch, something to brag about to the neighbors.

The East Bay is home to excellent wintertime mushroom hunting, if you know where to look. Most of the best edibles Miller has found in the region grow across the ridge, in Redwood Regional Park. The park's large stands of live oak and pine attract bushels of chanterelles and boletes (porcinis). Unfortunately, the East Bay Regional Park District forbids mushroom foraging, so we're here in Joaquin Miller Park, where the City of Oakland doesn't expressly outlaw the hunt.

After a thirty-minute lecture, the mob starts down the trail, spreading out to scour the ground. Successful hunters bring their prey to Miller for identification. The diversity of species they find is astonishing: cherry-red Russula rosacea; purple-gray, fluted Laccaria amethysteo-occidentalis; tiny Mycenae with pointy, striated caps; a honey-hued Gymnopilus the size of a dinner plate.

Each time a new mushroom is discovered, the crowds around Miller thicken, sending up choruses of "Is it edible? Is it edible?" Most are deemed bitter or "insipid" -- or even deadly. The East Bay's parks are filled with death caps, Amanita phalloides, which look an awful lot like portobellos but contain a potent hepatoxin that kills inexperienced Northern Californians every year. It's foolish to go plucking mushrooms from the hillside without an experienced mushroom hunter, or at least a copy of David Arora's All That the Rain Promises and More.

And then, in a gully snaking down the hill, two women discover a treasure trove: dozens of candy caps (Lactarius fragilis). Small and russet-colored, they have a distinctive maple-caramel scent that ripens as they dry. Candy caps are often used to flavor sweets such as crèmes brûlées and cookies. As soon as the cry is raised I plunge down the hill to root among the leaves, pine needles, and loose earth. I gingerly place the six or seven I find on my palm, carrying them with me for the next hour like a waiter holding a silver tray.

Northern California's rainy winters make December through February the peak time to forage for mushrooms. For more information on the Mycological Society's activities around the region, visit www.mssf.org or call 415-769-0495.

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