From Candy Caps to Witch’s Butter, the San Francisco Peninsula can be a field day for foraging—and photographing—fungi.

Photos/Intro by Charles Russo. Reporting by Laura Ness

A golden chanterelle mushroom, one of the most sought-after species for fungus hunters. Chanterelle mushrooms fetch a high price at grocery stores and are known to be very meaty, with a great flavor that is both nutty and fragrant. They are often found in the vicinity of Oak trees. (Photo by Charles Russo)

There’s something inherently weird about mushrooms. Amazingly weird, actually.

Think about it—they can kill you or make you hallucinate or perfect your pizza. They grow on poop and dead branches and in dark places where things don’t typically grow. They have an oddly unique (uniquely odd?) spongey texture and spring up in all manner of Plastic-Man-meets-alien-lifeform shapes. So if they’re weird, it’s a pretty wonderful—kinda Willy Wonka-like—kind of weird.

Clusters of “Trametes versicolor,” popularly known as Turkey Tail mushrooms. They are often found growing on logs or decomposing wood, and are believed to have potential medicinal value. In this regard, they can be chewed like gum (though certainly an acquired taste). (Photo by Charles Russo)

They’re also strangely photogenic. Sure, they can be small and often require you to lay down in pine needles or mud or underbrush for a decent shot, but they come in an amazing range of shapes and colors, as well as with cool names like Shaggy Parasol, Hen of the Woods and Man on Horseback.

Sadly, mushroom season has all but come to a close here on the Peninsula, which is the main reason we are running this photo gallery now. Like fishermen, ramen connoisseurs and concert goers, savvy mushroom hunters are in no big hurry to broadcast their scene to the stampeding masses. In this regard, our guides for this fungus photography expedition were indeed a (intentionally) quiet and solitary bunch. After all, the first rule of mushroom hunting is—Don’t talk about mushroom hunting. (Actually that’s not true, it’s —Don’t eat a Death Cap and die; but you get the point.)

So although the rains have been sparse this winter, they have proven adequate enough to sprout some majestic fungus from the earth of our 6–5–0 area code (within the cuts of Los Altos and La Honda and lonely old Loma Mar) for both foraging and photography.

Clockwise from top left: A pair of Lepista nuda, otherwise known as Blewits, commonly found near Oak trees; a small bounty of freshly harvested Chanterelles, which can cost as much as $30 per pound in a grocery store; a down-to-earth view of a sprouting fungus; Tremella mesenterica, the fungal jelly known as Witch’s Butter. (Photos by Charles Russo)

Cooking With Mushrooms

For some quick tips on overcoming the enigmatic aura of working with fungus in the kitchen, we inquired with Peninsula local Todd Spanier, aka “The King of Mushrooms.”

Spanier has been foraging the hills and forests of California for decades, having learned the the fine art of fungi identification from his Italian grandfathers. In 1996, Todd founded King of Mushrooms, a purveyor of sustainable foods specializing in mushrooms, truffles and other wild edibles. The company is recognized as one of the top suppliers on the West Coast, and counts many gourmet food shops and high-end restaurants among its loyal customers.

A common Russula mushroom (left), a popular edible for foragers, particularly the variety Shrimp Russula, which carries the scent of seafood; Possibly a Coprinus plicatilis—commonly known as a Pleated Inkcap—growing from a within a fallen pine cone. (Photos by Charles Russo)

Spanier frequently makes presentations to culinary groups and does wine and mushroom pairings at local wineries (often teaming up with Chef Neil Marquiz, former chef at the Rose Hotel in Pleasanton).

When it comes to kitchen basics, Spanier cites these rules as essential starting points for cooking with mushroom:

A plethora of Porcini harvested amid the heavy rains of the 2016–2017 winter. (Courtesy of @HMBMJ)
  • First of all, never, ever eat raw mushrooms, especially the common button and Cremini types that you so often see on salad bars. Why not? They are grown in compost. Always wipe them off with a damp cloth before cooking.
  • Never ever buy mushrooms that look brown or damp. A wet mushroom is strictly no bueno. They could be harboring bacteria.
  • Always cook mushrooms, except for truffles, which are the only ones you can safely shave and enjoy without cooking. Cooking mushrooms releases their vitamins.
  • When cooking buttons or pretty much any kind of mushroom, start them dry in a cast-iron or other heavy pan. You want them to expunge their moisture before adding any kind of liquid. When they start to brown, then add olive oil or butter and perhaps a dash of balsamic or wine. If you’re lucky enough to have King Trumpets, you can marinate them in garlic and oil and grill them. This works well for Portobellos, too.
The toxic (and highly psychoactive) Amanita muscaria mushroom. Most commonly found growing among fallen pine needles. (Photo by Charles Russo)

For more on Todd Spanier, check out his site

Spanier is also part of Chef’s Lounge, a group he created that now includes over 500 chefs, winemakers and foodies who gather monthly to share their love of food and wine. Their next event is Monday, March 5, at Wood Family Vineyards in Livermore.

Young Turkey Tails growing on a fallen log. (Photo by Charles Russo)

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