Bevan Hurley

Bevan Hurley is the Herald on Sunday chief reporter.

California: Fungi forage turns festive

Bevan Hurley braves moody horses and goes wild over mushrooms in Northern California.

In Mendocino village, things move slowly. But the food and wine is great. Photo / Visit California
In Mendocino village, things move slowly. But the food and wine is great. Photo / Visit California

Flying headfirst towards the California sand, having being shunted off a horse named after a Russian princess, I have the nagging feeling I have been here before.

The delights of Northern California are plentiful - beautiful food, outstanding wine, luxury lodges and charming B&Bs. All this is hemmed in by the stunning scenery of the Pacific Coast in a part of the US that still clings to the 60s like a hippie to his favourite tie-dyed shirt.

Horses, however, were not part of the plan.

It was a few days into our exploration of Northern California when we stopped in at Ricochet Ridge Ranch in Fort Bragg, a seaside town 265km north of San Francisco.

We were each allocated a steed and I was immediately suspicious of mine, a treacherous white nag named after the daughter of a Russian tsar. The feeling was mutual - I could feel her getting edgy as we approached the beach.

Whether it was the sand, the crashing waves, or the bite to the backside she received from the horse behind, she took off with Formula One acceleration, then stopped just as suddenly, launching me out of the saddle.

As I flew towards the ground, I remembered my only other attempt at horse riding had ended in the same unexpected acrobatics and embarrassment.

I got back on and from that point on stuck closely to our guide, ranch owner and professional cowgirl Lari Shea.

By the time we arrived for a tour of the former home of champion thoroughbred Seabiscuit later that afternoon, I'd had my fill of horses.

So it was fortunate that this trip was, in fact, all about fungus, in particular the Mendocino Mushroom and Wine Festival.

The festival is an annual gathering at which chefs and vintners get fanatical about fungi and try to come up with inventive uses for the 500 edible varieties available.

Held each November, the 10-day festival, now in its 12th year, attracts thousands of foodies who forage for mushrooms in the wake of autumn rains.

We tried a little foraging ourselves, venturing into Mendocino National Forest, catching the old steam Skunk Train from the town of Willits deep among the redwood trees.

On board the train, friendly festival-goers shared their Veuve Clicquot as a moustachioed troubadour - cleverly named the Train Singer - entertained.

We came to a halt at a Boy Scout centre in the middle of nowhere and followed the waft of Italian masala stews and porcini gnocchi inside.

Even a food Philistine such as myself couldn't help but be impressed at the culinary display.

There were quiches, chocolates, cheeses, almost all made from locally picked mushrooms, and all matched to drops of top-quality plonk.

Festival organiser Eric Schramm was on hand to describe the almost innumerable uses for mushrooms.

He's been collecting mushrooms in the area since the 1970s and now sells delicacies such as chanterelles and porcini to restaurants worldwide.

He claims to know virtually every one of the 3000 species found in the Mendocino forest by sight, but has some sage advice for the uneducated fungi hunter. "Mushrooms are like your neighbour's 200lb rottweiler. If you know it you can pet it, if you don't you shouldn't.

"Every mushroom is edible, some only once."

Still, if a dodgy mushroom was to end it all here in Mendocino, at least we'd had a good time exploring our way up the coast so far.

The trip began in Sausalito, across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. From there we hit the road up the coast headed for Bodega Bay, a fishing village that is home to a wildlife and a bird sanctuary. Appropriate, given it has been the home of ornithophobia ever since Alfred Hitchcock set his classic horror flick The Birds there.

Next up was Gualala, where it seemed pretty much every second person was an artist who fled the city and had been living their own endless summer of love ever since. A quick visit to the arts centre was made memorable by its brilliant director, David "Sus" Susalla, who gave us a guided tour of the studio and theatre.

Sus displayed the kind of delirious enthusiasm for his work that seems to infect many of his countrymen.

Leading us out to a courtyard surrounded by redwoods, he explained how he liked to nibble on the seedlings that had fallen from the ancient trees.

"It's a bit like you're eating 10,000-year-old DNA," he says.

At the end of the day we arrived in Mendocino, a town reminiscent of that Jack Daniels ad where locals are keen to remind you that things move a "little slowly round here". But the slow internet connection and a lack of mobile phone coverage was just fine, because like the rest of Northern California, there was nothing backwards about the food and wine.

IF YOU GO

* This year's Mendocino Wine and Mushroom Festival is from November 5-15. For details on the festival and other sights and activities in the region, visit visitmendocino.com

* Getting there:
Air New Zealand flies direct to San Francisco seven times a week. For more information call 0800 737 000 or visit airnewzealand.co.nz

* Bevan Hurley travelled courtesy of Air New Zealand and was a guest of Visit Mendocino County.

- NZ Herald

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