As a passionate lover of learning new things, my mother was not surprised when, on our recent vacation together in Big Sur, California, I declared, “Mushrooms are going to be my next big thing!” Months ago, I learned about the Big Sur Forager’s Festival on social media, and knew immediately that I had to get there.
The event benefits the Big Sur Health Center, the existence of which reminds me that people actually do live and work in this magical place I’ve visited three times in the last two years. I simply cannot get enough of Big Sur. During my most outlandish workday escapist fantasies, my mind is at Pfeiffer Beach feeling the wind on my face, soft purple-streaked sand between my toes, and a cool rock against my back.
So, in mid-January, Mom and I found ourselves in the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park on a nature walk among impossibly tall redwoods that filtered the bright California sunshine. Two expert local foragers who led the morning walk brought samples from the surrounding area of all manner of fungus so we could look at, feel, and smell dozens of edible and toxic mushrooms. I learned bits and pieces about the fascinating kingdom of fungus. It was just enough to whet my appetite, literally and figuratively, for mushrooms.
I’ve always been a science geek, so I’m eager to learn more. One of the experts recommended the “mushroom bible” called Mushrooms Demystified by David Arora, which I have already ordered. As a lover of food, however, it was the rest of the day’s activities that satisfied my appetite for wild edibles of all kinds. After the walk in the woods, we headed to the iconic Ventana Inn and Spa for the Fungus Face-Off . Yes, really. All weekend, I had a difficult time saying “Fungus face-off” without blushing.
There, outside overlooking the impossibly beautiful California coastline, local chefs competed for a chance to win a number of awards by presenting small bites featuring mushrooms. There were also many local wines and beers to sample along with our appetizers.
The Fungus Face-Off was complete with a raffle for a number of different prizes, my favorite being an entire barrel full of bottles of local wine, and a silent auction. Since Mom and I had, days earlier, treated ourselves to the very best massage of our entire lives from Lynette and Julian at Namaste Therapeutic Bodyworks, I was quick to start the bidding on another session with them.
My plan was foiled since we left the event early, and I was outbid. No matter, 60 minutes isn’t long enough anyway! I’ll come back to Big Sur and book 90 minutes with them just as soon as my bank account will allow.
The finale of the day was indeed grand. The Grand Celebrity Chef’s Dinner was a multi-course foodie dream come true complete with wine pairings along the way. Held in the restaurant at Ventana, the dinner featured guest chefs Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski, Chef Proprietors from State Bird Provisions in San Francisco along with Paul Corsentino from Ventana. The food was glorious to look at and even better to eat.
California is a hotbed for gourmet food, and I knew I was among like-minded food fanatics as we got acquainted with those seated near us. Susan, the woman next to me, said she wanted to come to the forager’s dinner partly because she has not been able to get a reservation at State Bird Provisions, one of the hottest restaurants in the city. She figured it was her best chance to sample the work of Brioza and Krasinski. Another woman across from me wondered how we had pea shoots in one of our courses because “surely they were out of season.” We decided that there must be a hoop house nearby growing them. Susan has already e-mailed what looks like a killer sourdough English muffin recipe. Louis, another diner recommended we stop in Santa Cruz on our way up the coast and have what turned out to be a wonderful lunch at his restaurant, the West End Tap and Kitchen.
The Big Sur Forager’s Festival spans an entire weekend each January and advance tickets to the various events are required. The winter weather along the coast is unbeatable, and Mom and I experienced one perfect day after another while we were there.
My only disappointment is that the weather had been too dry along the central coast for weeks leading up to the nature walk. Consequently, we didn’t get to see many mushrooms on the forest floor. I so wanted to see what chanterelles look like when they’re not on a grocery shelf! I suppose that means I will simply need to attend the Big Sur Forager’s Festival another time.
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