For a very long time, the only mushrooms I knew about were button mushrooms and the canned straw mushrooms you'd get in your stir-fry at Chinese restaurants. I liked them fine, but little did I know there was a whole world of mushrooms out there to discover. Eventually, portobello, enoki, and shiitake mushrooms found their way to me.I spent a year in Tuscany on a study abroad program. There, I was introduced to the porcini and the white truffle. Delicious!
A trip to Seattle introduced me to the fruity chanterelle. Then I moved to San Francisco and discovered Far West Fungi. I would go there and stare wide-eyed at all the different kinds of mushrooms that I'd never heard of before, such as lobster and wine cap mushrooms, and wonder what on earth to do with them. Traveling in Japan introduced me to the matsutake. I got an oyster mushroom kit and started growing them at home.
I had a friend from Russia who would tell me stories about going to pick mushrooms in the forest, and I knew many people in France and Italy who foraged for both mushrooms and truffles. I wanted to learn how to do this. But how? Where? I didn't know anyone locally who did this. People I grew up with didn't do this. It was intimidating as heck. Eating the wrong kind of mushroom could kill you! And then I discovered the Mycological Society of San Francisco, and started going on forays with the group and my Opinel knife, and learning more with the help of the member email list and David Arora's books.
And now, after many forays, I can safely identify chanterelles, porcinis, and morels. Mushroom foraging has opened up a new world for me. When I look at the hillsides and mountains, I think about the mycellium running underneath them. I know when the air gets colder and when the rains come, delicious treasures will be found under those trees.
(Images: Kathryn Hill, Flickr member ulterior epicure, Wikipedia, PaulsFinest.com)