I dodged Seattle’s Snowpacalypse 2012 for a week in NorCal, fleeing back home just as the volley of storms continued south and transformed the Chetco, Smith, and other coastal rivers into angry brown torrents. This was a “working vacation” spent gathering material for the next book, but it was also an excuse to see some of the best that the region has to offer.
In a brief week I managed to pack in three redwood hikes, including an amazing 12-mile loop through the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park that took me out to a lonely Pacific beach where my footprints were the only human presence for miles, and another in Jedediah State Park in a windy downpour that dumped lichens and branches down upon me besides the rain.
The redwoods earn all their accustomed superlatives and more. I recommend a winter visit when you can be alone among the thousand-year-old trees and contemplate the forces that bequeathed us a mere one percent of the original ancient forest. Talk about one-percenter.
I joined a wild harvester friend of mine for winter pick on the Lost Coast (pictured at top), where we gathered 25 pounds of watercress from a pristine spring, the season’s first greens. (I’ve been eating a salubrious watercress salad pretty much every day since then.) Stinging nettles and miner’s lettuce were just beginning to hit their stride at this latitude.
My friend calls the old-growth redwood forest “bad medicine,” an expression he picked up from a local Indian man. If you’re a mushroom picker, this is no doubt true—not much in the way of commercial mushrooms grows beneath the world’s tallest trees besides the odd hedgehog here and there. On the other hand—and this is one of the great ironies of the trade—the cutover redwood forests are filled with, not surprisingly, redwood decay, and where there is decay there is fungus. Hundred-year-old stumps as big as Volkswagen bugs now fill woods mostly shaded by tanoak, madrone, and Douglas-fir. Mushrooms that prefer this decay include bellybutton hedgehogs and yellowfoot chanterelles. But even better, in this mycophagist’s opinion, is a species that seems to be mycorrhizal with the deciduous trees and yet needs some of that redwood decay to really prosper: the black trumpet (Craterellus cornucopioides).
It’s not a good year in NorCal for winter pick. Those weeks of high winter barometer up and down the Pacific Northwest conspired to stunt the fruiting of mushrooms. Places that one might expect to be loaded with fungi are strangely bare. It remains to be seen whether the recent storms can reverse the trend. Pickers I spoke to in the Brookings area just over the border figured that the late rain would actually put an end to their season, but farther to the south the effects may be the opposite. I can say that I found quite a few babies in one upland patch in Humboldt that will certainly be flourishing in a couple weeks.
Back home I returned to a fridge filled with half-finished stuff. Such unappreciated riches shouldn’t be thought of as a burden. The dog’s breakfast is perfect way to get creative in the kitchen, and sometimes you make something unexpected and delicious that becomes part of the regular repertoire. A quick inventory revealed a partially eaten package of prosciutto, two Italian sausages, a corner of parmesan, and a big yogurt container filled with an accumulation of leftover diced tomatoes. What a bonanza!
With the tomatoes I made a simple red sauce with garlic and olive oil and let this simmer for an hour, adding water occasionally as it thickened. I sliced the prosciutto (about two ounces) into strips and crumbled the sausage, browning both in a little olive oil. To this I added two huge handfuls of black trumpet mushrooms. Meanwhile I brought a pot of water to boil and add a pound of pappardelle. Just before the pasta was cooked, I added two handfuls of stemmed watercress to the meat-and-mushroom mixture and allowed it to wilt. The plated pasta got a ladleful of red sauce and a few spoonfuls of the meat-mushroom-watercress. Shavings of parm added the finishing touch.