Darvin DeShazer, a biology teacher at St. Vincent High School, walks out of his science lab on Friday, exits the school through a back door, and almost immediately finds what he is looking for: mushrooms.
He strides into what the uninitiated might view as just a patch of lawn and plucks a squat, patty-shaped fungus from the ground.
"This is poison pie," he says. Then he turns to a cluster of small, button-shaped mushrooms growing nearby. "These are believed to be toxic, too."
DeShazer should know — a self-taught mushroom expert and cofounder of the Sonoma County Mycological Association, he's the person hospitals and veterinarians call when there's been a suspected poisoning.
Poisonous mushrooms are on many people's minds during the rainy months, when mushrooms pop up everywhere around Sonoma County. It's the time of year when food enthusiasts and immigrants, accustomed to foraging in their home countries, take to the woods to seek out a smorgasboard of edible fungus — an activity not without risk.
In the last year in California, five people have died from eating poisonous mushrooms, mainly as a result of someone mistaking a deadly one for an edible lookalike. Last week, the director of the state department of public health issued a warning not to collect and eat wild mushrooms.
There are dozens of deadly poisonous mushrooms in the area, DeShazer estimates, though two are the most common: The aptly-named death cap, which looks like an edible mushroom found in other parts of the world, and the equally ominous western destroying angel.
"The number one rule that you have to follow," says DeShazer, "is don't eat it unless you're absolutely sure."
Being sure takes a lot of study, though an increasing number of people are finding the effort worth the reward: An array of unusual and exciting culinary flavors and textures. Indeed, most enthusiasts DeShazer knows are interested in mushrooms for their edible qualities, with the majority of people focusing on about 10 popular mushrooms that have gourmet applications, like the chanterelle and the morel.
DeShazer lists off some of his favorites: Candy cap, which he said smells like maple syrup and is used in cakes, cookies and ice-cream; and matsutake, which he described as tasting like a combination of red hot candy and dirty gym socks.
Apparently, it's delicious: "It's unbelievably sought after," he said. On the savory end of the spectrum, there's the juicy, blood red beefsteak and the golden chanterelle, which is the mushroom that first snared DeShazer's interest.
More than 35 years ago, a college friend took him hunting for it.
"We were just a mile from where I lived, and the (forest) floor was orange with them," he recalls. We gathered a whole shopping bag full." He cooked them up for a couple weeks, enjoying the rich, apricot flavor that has made the chanterelle a sought-after delicacy that currently fetches about $30 a pound in local grocery stores. His friend took him back next year, and he was hooked. Now, his favorite dish with the mushroom is salmon stuffed with apricot jam and chanterelles.
For DeShazer, who earned a bachelors degree in biology, learning to identify mushrooms came easily. He bought a couple mushroom identification books, and, as he understatedly puts it, "eventually got pretty good" at it.