While It’s Monsoon Season in the Desert, It’s Mushroom Season in the Sierras.
Rain! The water of life! Dry throat-parching dust turns to luscious greasy mud. People who have been lethargic all summer come alive and start to smile. Struggling plants that look like weeds become towering corn plants with fat fuzzy ears as big as your forearm. Tenuous little blue flowers on slithering stringy vines bring forth a bonanza of beans. And underground a quiet revolution is brewing. Overnight, the floor of the high sierra pine forests gets pushed up and away as mushrooms emerge. The folks in one little backwater town high in the Sierra Tarahumara have a field day. Day after day, rain or shine, alone and in groups, they comb the forest floor looking for local delicacies. They can fill a 5 gallon bucket in a morning with Morochikes (Amanita ceasarea) and Sojachis (Amanita rubescens), carefully avoiding Gerechaka (Amanita muscaria) and Rojos (Russula emetica– that’s right; the vomiting mushroom!).
The folks in San Juanito, Chihuahua, have an annual 4 day festival with exhibits and performance art. Visiting chefs hold cooking classes. Biologists, mycologists, dendrochronologists (tree ring scientists), and even fire fighters give talks and have demonstration tables. Kitschy mushroom art pops up as quickly as the mushrooms themselves. Hoola-hoopers spin, digeridoos and counter culture drumming circles resonate in the streets. They have a beauty contest, and highlight traditional dress. Then they crown a mushroom queen, although I think she’s really a princess. Nearby at the rustic resort “Noritari Cabañas en Bosque“, the proprietor Sol is featuring mushrooms in her cooking.
I drove down from Tucson to witness this happy event, and hopefully see Cascada Basaseachi in flood. We’ve been having a marginal monsoon season in the Sonoran desert anyway. The day I drove down there was no rain. There were hardly any clouds. Even the sunset at Basaseachi, with sunsets normally so spectacular at 7000 feet, it was over in no time with no residual colors. But the stars that night put on an incredible show. The Milky Way was just visible in my field of view from the porch at Juanita and Jaoquin’s. After dinner the Milky Way was moving front and center. I used a new camera to see if it’s possible to capture that view, but mostly I just stared at the awesome night sky.
I arrived early at Noritari to find Consuelo preparing food at the dining room table. It turns out that she was cleaning that morning’s harvest. Many of the Morochikes were as smooth and ripe-looking and red as a polished Fuji apple, and easily the same size. They varied in color from brilliant red to pinks to pale yellow. They varied in shape from perfectly round to flattened out, and the size varied from a small apple to that day’s prize of a dinner plate sized fungus. It was flattish mushroom that was easily an 8 inch span on an 8 inch stalk that was almost 2 inches in diameter! That’s a meal in itself. The smooth texture of the Morochikes is a giveaway that they’re not related to their poisonous cousins. If you see a brilliant red mushroom in these parts, with white warts or spots, leave it alone. They also say that white stems or fins are suspect. Out of 2 five gallon bucket’s worth of mushrooms, there were just 2 Sojachis and it was hard to pin down it’s particulars. Even after I went to the festival and talked with the biologists and mycologists and various and sundry experts, I wasn’t confident of putting myself at risk.
Back at Noritari, we made camp and went for a walk. It started sprinkling toward the end of our day hike, and then it picked up. It rained so hard we had to hunker under a cliff for a half hour or so. As we were waiting for the rain to abate, a guy came fording the stream carrying a full bag of mushrooms. He was soaking wet. His dress shoes were soaking wet. He asked if I had a cigarette. I said no, so he started to climb the trail that apparently started right beside the rock we were under. Poor Silvantino, but at least he’s got a good meal for tonight or he’ll sell them like most mushroom harvester do in this region.
In the afternoon, I went in to talk with Sol. Like a good Jewish mother, she told me to sit down and have something to eat. Her daughter Solecito put crispy tortilla chips and spicy green homemade salsa at a setting at one end of a long table. Presently she arrived with their signature spicy coffee in a clay cup. Soon Sol appeared with a dish of large sautéed mushrooms accented with cubed mushrooms, and a warm salad of tomatoes, lettuce and onions sprinkled with sesame seeds. I think the lettuce was blanched to reduce some of the water, as it was warm and tasty. Sol lit extra candles in the homey restaurant, and sat with me so we could talk. I asked her about the restaurant and living here in the Sierra Madre in general. She spoke at length. She had a government job in the state of Guerrero, but it was hectic. At some point she visited the Sierras, and now she’s been here for 18 years. She is passionate about her cooking, and about the ambiance of the resort. Noritari has 24 cabañas scattered around 80 hectares (200 acres). It also has a spacious restaurant that will seat 80. There is a putt-putt course albeit a bit derelict and a basketball court, as well as a kids’ size cabaña complete with a fully stocked kitchen and beds. Without the peaked roof, an adult couldn’t stand up in there. A 45 minute walk on a well signed path will get you to a lake where there is a covered shelter with a grill. A lot of work has gone into preserving and improving the grounds. There are countless gabbions to check rain flow in the arroyos, and numerous trincheras (walls of rock) or rows of downed branches contouring the steep countryside to check erosion. The crowning touch for the grounds has to be the brightly painted Tarahumaran ollas strategically placed or, depending on your point of view, placed higgledy piggledy throughout. The pots in concert with carved stone mushrooms, wood carvings, trasteros, mirrors, and painted clay plates give the place the feeling of how a garden gnome would decorate if a garden gnome could decorate.
I went out for a walk after talking with the chefs, and several times I went to investigate colorful shapes in the wet, normally brown pine undergrowth. Every time if it was a mushroom, it was the wrong kind. Frequently, there was no more than a stalk. The mushroom harvesters had done a thorough job picking mostly just the crowns even though the stalks are just as edible; and leaving all the poisonous posers. That night, I staked the tent out securely in case it rained. And it rained all night. We were safely settled on a thick bed of pine needles so as it rained and poured and thundered and lightninged, we stayed comfortable dry high and dry. The second night was a repeat. Low grumbling thunder followed lightning flashes. Some followed hard on the heels of the lightning and other times, I lost count warm and cosy in my bag.
The next morning after an all night rain, I took an early morning walk around the tent, and quickly found about a dozen morochikes. I took them to the restaurant kitchen, but only the manager Alejandro was there. He thanked me for the mushrooms, but said no one would be in for a while. I left for a post breakfast walk with the dog. In the forest, I spoke with a girl collecting mushrooms, who was a niece of Consuelo. She had lots of Morochikes and a few Sojachis. I tried to get her to explain how she could identify them. She was very sure of herself, and the Sojachis she had were covered in white spots. The stalks and the fins were creamy and not white, and the fins were well defined. Shortly her mother joined her from another direction with a bucket and a bag-both full. They must have started early to get so many. They conspired to explain further, but I wasn’t a great student. They also mentioned that the Morochike frequently has a skirt under the cap, and they’re generally light yellow-but never white. They grow in just a few hours so it’s conceivable to collect twice a day. Further down the path I saw a horseman. We chatted a bit. His name was Francisco, and he owns the Rancho Viveros, the fertile flatland in the arroyo leading to Presa Sitorachi. There is currently no greenhouse contrary to the name, but they used to grow pine saplings. Now they raise trout. During this second walk I didn’t find many of the correct mushrooms, but there were lots of others that the collectors had passed over. Some had fuzzy fins, some had too much texture on the caps since the Morochikes are smooth. I found a flower fungus, another one was star shaped, and little brown ones growing on cattle dung. I took some photos, but by now I had a hill in my sites, so Remo and I spent a while finding the ascent through the cap rock barrier. On top we were rewarded with a great view of San Juanito, and on the opposite side we got merely a glimpse of Cabañas en Bosque appropriately ensconced in the trees.
Sol was in the kitchen when I returned clucking about directing operations for her guests. True to form, she sat me down and presented me with some of the day’s culinary creations. She started with a mushroom and lentil soup and finished with a mushroom omelet, accompanied by her hot spicy coffee. Tasty stuff, and filling. As I left I spoke with a wedding party that was staying at the resort. They had arrived late and had gone mushroom hunting by flashlight during a lull in the rain. Now they were off to enjoy the fiesta in town. With town only 4 km from Noritari, it doesn’t take much effort to ditch the hustle bustle of town and enjoy the solitude of the forest, or visa versa. But if find yourself in high sierra town of San Juanito, your only option for world class cooking is Noritari. Be sure and look for the Feria del Hongos 2014 the second week in August.