Fast Class: Discovering porcinis and chanterelles in Sonoma County
Carlo Bongio of Santa Rosa says edible mushrooms can be found in the same place each year, typically from October until New Year’s.
“That’s the rainy season. These little spores can lie dormant for years. When they get water, they start to grow,” said Bongio.
Bongio is the instructor for Mushroom Hunting 101, a Special Interest class for adults 18 and over offered through the City of Santa Rosa’s Recreation & Parks department.
The class is held at Salt Point State Park, located about 40 miles north of Jenner on Highway 1.
“It’s one of the few public spaces where you can collect mushrooms, there and Point Reyes,” said Bongio.
The most common edible mushrooms in Sonoma County are porcinis, which have a meaty texture and flavor; chanterelles, which are thick and have a mild, earthy flavor; and oyster mushrooms that grow on trees, which are pearl grey and white and have a meaty, earthy flavor. The best places to gather mushrooms are mixed woods, where pines, oaks, manzanitas, and madrones grow all together.
Bongio has an Associate of Sciences degree in Biology from the College of Marin but is mainly self-taught. He learned the art of mushroom gathering from his father.
“I’m from Italy. I immigrated when I was 2. I was taught by my father, who learned from his father, and so on,” said Bongio.
Bongio’s family is from a small town called Morbegno close to Lake Como. It is about 50 miles from the Swiss border.
“The mushrooms that grow over the mountains in that part of Italy are the same as those in Sonoma County,” said Bongio.
Bongio, who went on his first mushroom hunt at the age of 13, practiced his skills in Marin counties near lakes. Later, many parks stopped allowing local collecting.
Bongio has a few suggestions for newcomers to the art of mushroom collecting.
- When in doubt, throw it out. “If you can’t identify it 100%, don’t eat it,” said Bongio.
- Be aware of the strict limits for state parks. At Salt Point State Park this is 5 lbs. per person.
- Use a plastic bag, burlap sack, wicker basket, or paper bag to collect mushrooms. A picked mushroom should be allowed to breathe rather than confined and allowed to get wet.
- Learn the different varieties of porcinis. “The porcini you want to get has a dark or light brown cap and a white stem. If the mushroom has a red stem, that’s a different kind of porcini. You won’t die, but you’ll get sick. We call those “lose your lunchbox” mushrooms,” said Bongio.
- Go back to the same spots year after year unless someone has disturbed the earth. “A mushroom is the reproductive body of a fruiting fungus that runs under the ground. It’s like a berry bush. You can (pick and) eat the berry. (If you don’t dig up the ground), the bush is still there,” said Bongio.
- Become familiar with the few types of poisonous mushrooms common to Sonoma County. One of these is the death cap, Amanita phalloides. “There are a few mushrooms out there that will kill you. A teaspoon of those and you’ll be dead,” said Bongio.
- Look for mushrooms with a nice, pungent smell and earthy flavor rather. Do not pick and eat mushrooms with a fermented smell or dry or withered texture.
- Use the dry sautéing method to cook mushrooms. “Slice mushrooms, then put them on a high flame. As you cook it, the water starts to come out. After a while, add a little wine, butter, or olive oil. Everything goes out of it (the mushroom) and everything goes back into it,” said Bongio.
Bongio said mushroom hunting is a passion for him because it is both a healthy and exciting outdoor activity.
“You go out and get good exercise. Then you’re hunting for something, it’s like finding a treasure every time. You’re becoming a hunter and gatherer again,” said Bongio.
Mushroom Hunting 101, sponsored by the City of Santa Rosa Recreation & Parks
Meets: 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday Nov. 16, Nov. 23 or Dec. 14
Where: Salt Point State Park, 25050 Rt. 1, Jenner
Cost: $85, $75 for Santa Rosa residents
Info and registration: 543-3737, econnect.ci.santa-rosa.ca.us, barcode 69059, 69060 or 69061.