Charmoon Richardson on the finer points of foraging.
While the woods of Salt Point State Park just south of Gualala appear to be sleeping each winter, they are in fact rustling, popping, and spreading with a carpet of fruits.
Not with apples or prunes or grapes—this fruit is the mushroom, that rain-born annual miracle that appears, seemingly overnight, from underneath a piney carpet.
According to amateur mycologist and ardent foodie Charmoon Richardson, Sonoma County is lucky enough to have some of the best mushroom fields in the world.
“If you travel to Alaska, Colorado, Mexico, or Italy for mushroom hunting, you discover that Salt Point is more prolific, has a wider variety of species, and has a longer season than anywhere else,” Richardson says. “The season lasts months longer and there’s this whole succession of mushrooms from the beginning of the rainy season through March or April. It is really a special place.”
It’s also the only legal state park in the area for mushroom foraging, with a five-pound per-person day limit.
Richardson, 62, grew up in Marin County and remembers being just five when he discovered his first fungus growing from a tree. “Once I learned it was a mushroom,” he says, “it opened a door in my mind.” In his 20s, he gave himself the personal goal of learning everything he could about mycelium, particularly the elusive morel, a succulent fungi highly sought after by chefs. He ate his first wild mushroom at famed food writer M.F.K. Fisher’s urging, trained with mycological master David Arora, and immersed himself further with naturalist Jesse Longacre.
The proprietor of Wild About Mushrooms, based in Forestville, Richardson is newly quadriplegic but stays active in the Sonoma County Mycological Association, plans monthly foraging forays, and preps the annual Mushroom Camp held each January.
When asked about his favorite morel preparation, Richardson’s voice strengthens with pleasure.
“They’ve got to be big fat ones,” he chuckles. “You stuff them with a mixture of crab meat, breadcrumbs, and Gruyère cheese, and you baste them in garlic butter and grill them over good mountain wood, no charcoal. That’s the best. They’re done when they’re tender. You can tell when they get a little brown and crispy on the outside.”
Does he travel with fresh crabmeat for this feast? You bet he does.
As foraging for wild food has become more popular, the health of wild foods is put increasingly at risk. Richardson is particularly disappointed by the amount of trash he has found in the woods.
And perhaps surprisingly, he isn’t too worried about eating poisonous mushrooms by mistake. “There are very few very toxic mushrooms,” he says. “There are 3,000-4,000 species of mushrooms just in California alone. Out of all those thousands, maybe a couple hundred are edible, 40 to 60 are really good, and all the rest are in a big grey area where they’re tough and leathery or slimy and disgusting or bitter or sour or acrid.
“They’re not going to kill you,” he continues, “they might make you sick to your stomach, but there’s lots of reasons why you would not want to eat a wild mushroom other than the fact that it’s deadly poisonous. Maybe 15 are deadly poisonous, but most of them you would not be interested in picking for food because they’re too small.”
Richardson cautions that knowing how to properly pick a mushroom ensures that the plant will fruit again.
“Mushrooms should be gently twisted and pulled up,” he says. “That sends a signal to the mycelium that, ‘our fruiting body is gone, we’d better make another one.’” It’s also important to re-cover the forest carpet where you’ve picked to protect the plant underneath. “Otherwise, you’re inviting an opportunity for the mycelium to dry out,” he says.
Richardson praises Paul Stamets as “a visionary” and accedes that mushrooms may have the power to save humankind. But mostly what the man likes to do is to eat the things.
“My main focus is gourmet culinary mushrooms,” Richardson says. “I’m also very interested in, and used to be much more involved in, teaching how to cook mushrooms, how to cultivate mushrooms—all of these aspects of the fascination and reward that come with unraveling the mysteries. I don’t know if I can quantify that with words.” He rests for a moment.
“That’s part of the reason that people love mushrooms. There’s this intrinsic sense of accomplishment.”