PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Across the street are three young men carrying cloth sacks, walking slowly through the woods in hunched-over style — a posture known in south Florida as the Sanibel Stoop, because Sanibel Island’s gorgeous shells lure many beachcombers. But here in Central California the bounty is a tasty brown mushroom, so you might say this is the Porcini Parade.
A dozen or more foragers trekked by this morning, remarkable when you consider that here in the Del Monte Forest I wouldn’t expect to see that many passersby in a month. Usually, cars are only parked on the sides of these roads during major golf tournaments, but since mushroom fever struck in November they’re wedged under trees and leaning into ditches, as their owners poke for porcinis.
Perhaps it was the early fall rain and favorable temperatures that moved Mother Nature to make this the best porcini season in anyone’s memory. Maybe it was the sour economy that inspired so many folks to pay the fee to enter this renowned tourist venue, and then skip the scenic drive in favor of searching for pudgy mushrooms that retail for as much as $10 apiece.
An acquaintance for whom an hour of searching in past years sometimes led to a phone call with the news, “I found one!” reports she now has 186 porcinis in her freezer.
Two young men parked near my house last week and boasted they had a thousand dollars worth of orders from restaurants in San Francisco. Indeed, the back of their car was crammed with perfect Boletus edulis specimens, some with caps as wide as Frisbees.
Encouraged by my wife, who is a great cook but not a nature-lover, I took up the hunt. I managed to make every possible mistake — from using a plastic bag (it makes the porcinis “sweat”), to washing off the dirt rather than using a dry brush (they suck up the water and rot). I got poison oak on my face, cut my left hand in two places, and twisted an ankle tripping over a downed tree. Yet, it was exhilarating.
After a few weeks in the forest our dinner conversation began to sound like the scene from “Forrest Gump” in which Bubba obsesses about uses for shrimp. “You can barbecue it, boil it, broil it, bake it, sautÃ© it…” But regardless of your culinary creativity, there are only so many ways to cook porcinis.
So I placed an ad on Craig’s List offering “Grade AA” porcinis for $12 a pound. Soon I got a call from a woman who fit the necessary profile: she loves mushrooms but had been out of town since the harvest began, and wasn’t aware that this year porcinis are probably growing in her driveway. She paid me $20 for six smallish specimens.
Next I went to the fanciest restaurant in town, where the chef estimated I was the 25th porcini seller to come by. Nevertheless, he paid me $50 for a seven-pound bag.
The moral of this story — not the morel, because that’s an entirely different type of mushroom — probably has something to do with weather, economy, nature, human nature and capitalism. However, I can’t quite figure out which.
I recall my mother reminding me on dozens of occasions that “money doesn’t grow on trees.” She never talked about the times when it pokes out from under pine needles.
Anyway, mushroom season is ending. The woods look like a battlefield, with rutted earth and scattered carcasses of mushrooms that were ripped from the ground and then found to be either spoiled or the wrong variety. Foragers are hanging up their Boletus brushes, wondering if this bounty will occur again next fall.
Diehard scavengers will now turn from nature’s exquisite plan to duffers’ errant shots. The woods here provide hiding places for thousands of misplayed golf balls, some worth a buck or two at local golf shops. They can be found by anyone caring to do the Titleist Trot.
Peter Funt is a writer and speaker and can be reached at www.CandidCamera.com.
©2012 Peter Funt. Columns distributed exclusively by: Cagle Cartoons, Inc., newspaper syndicate. For more info contact Cari Dawson Bartley. Email Cari@cagle.com, (800) 696-7561