Something in the distance, something his charges’ untrained eyes fail to detect, prompts Chuck Bancroft to make a beeline to an oak tree. Clad in jeans and a plaid jacket, Bancroft walks in long strides toward the tree, swinging his basket with each step. When he arrives, he drops to his knees, pulls out a trowel, and digs up a lone white mushroom that was growing in the tree’s shade. Bancroft scratches its stock and takes a sniff. It smells medicinal, not earthy, and it has a yellowish-green tinge. This is definitely not the culinary prize the guide and his small group of first-time hunters seek; this mushroom is deadly.
Thunderstorms earlier in the week have left the sky clear and the ground damp on this February morning—perfect conditions, Bancroft says, for collecting a variety of mushrooms, including the very edible chanterelle. We arrived at this remote spot in the Santa Lucia Mountains of California’s Big Sur by way of the nearby Ventana Inn & Spa, which offers three guided mushroom forays each winter to its guests. Like most mushroom hunters, Bancroft exhibits a territorial streak: He and his wife, Sheryl, members of the Fungus Federation of Santa Cruz (a mushroom enthusiasts’ club), ask us to take an oath that we will not reveal the location of “their” secret hunting grounds, so help us God.
Big Sur—a 100-mile-long coastal region with coniferous forests, coastal fog, and a Mediterranean climate—contains fungus-friendly microhabitats that produce mushrooms from fall through late spring. In addition to the chanterelles, here you can find edible morels, portabellas, and porcinis. Alas, the forests also yield toxic varieties labeled with such ominous names as death cap, destroying angel, and Satan’s Bolete.
An hour into our hunt, we all are practicing an instinctive hunter-gatherer silent meditation, searching for colors—red, blue, white, black, and orange—that appear out of place here. Most of the mushrooms we find are poisonous, as noted by Bancroft, who always brings along a field guide for insurance. When asked if he has any war stories involving poisonous mushrooms, Bancroft, who also is a park ranger, is quick to say no, citing the mushroomer’s creed, “There are old mushroom hunters, and there are bold mushroom hunters, but there are no old, bold mushroom hunters.” He does confess that a friend once fell ill after Bancroft shared some edible mushrooms with him. “I was fine, but he just happened to be one of those people who are sensitive to certain types of mushrooms,” says Bancroft. “And he ate a lot of them.” Assured that our lunch will not prove perilous, we look forward to capping the morning back at the resort with a multicourse meal of California wines, roast duck, truffles, and the succulent wild mushrooms we anticipate picking.
Under the canopy of centuries-old oaks, we eventually come upon troops of chanterelles in all their golden glory. “Be selective,” says Bancroft, “and take just the best ones.” Greedily, we fill our baskets with the trumpet-shaped fungi, inhaling their pleasant pumpkin, butternut, and apricot scents. One member of our party spots another magnificent cluster on an incline behind some lush foliage and makes a start for them. “Only if you want to fight the poison oak,” warns Bancroft. “You don’t want to tempt fate, do you?”
Ventana Inn & Spa