Winter Foraging

A scream emanated from behind the conifer tree, its redwood base as wide as a Fiat. Rounding its bend, I found her kneeling on a carpet of pine needles; shaking, pointing, on her lips a frozen smile. A blondish fungus resembling a giant brain and bigger than a soccer ball was living on the foot of the tree, a creepy, fangless vampire. The cauliflower mushroom, its dense body like an enormous sea sponge balanced on the ledge of a showy bathtub, is an unusual and highly prized forest find. A foraging knife too small to liberate this mycelium monster, the mushroom was gently cut away with a hunting knife, leaving a bit of its stem in place to encourage its regrowth the following year. After four hours spent hiking through wet hills and valleys, the melody of the Pacific Ocean never out of earshot, our baskets were heavy with candy caps, yellow and golden chanterelles, and black trumpets; all cradled in cut pine boughs layered into our hampers.

It was the Sparassis crispa, however, for which I was already plotting. Weighing in at more than three pounds, the cauliflower mushroom would be supper for several evenings and dried to use in several more. Cutting the colossal globe into large pieces the size of pizza slices, its unusual aromas of pine, marzipan, and the mammalian musk of sweaty summer sex filled the kitchen. Cleaned of pine needles and dirt, several wedges were laid into a cherished cast iron skillet slick with olive oil, and strewn with a handful of chopped garlic and cubes of pancetta. A brined pork loin, the last of the pig butchered the previous spring, was tucked into the pan’s center and decorated with the smaller candy cap mushrooms, their maple syrup sweetness a perfect foil to the gamey, oven roasted meat. While there was still wine remaining in the bottle, I doused the hot skillet with a yellowing Alsatian Weinbach Pinot Gris, sending up a cloud of fragrant aroma, whetting the appetite. The fronds of the cauliflower mushroom, their wavy edges evoking Manischewitz egg noodles, sizzled and browned and crisped, concentrating their tellurian flavors of the winter woods.

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