The Big Sur Chanterelle Cook Off launches an enchanted tradition.

By Mark C. Anderson

Witch's butter. False turkey tail. Destroying angel. Elfin saddle. They spring forth from rich soil in shady pockets of our most fantastic local forests&emdash;from the base of redwood, beneath the protection of poison oak, and along trunks of oak. Some glow vibrant orange, sunset yellow or outlandish red. Their earthy perfume can give master chefs cause to gurgle like happy babies; their flavors can give eaters a serious case of the eyes-rolling-back-in-head-itis. If it all sounds a little bit like magic, that wouldn't be far off. In fact, the pilgrims who reported to the Big Sur Lodge for the first ever Big Sur Chanterelle Cook Off last weekend&emdash;stretching from a Friday kick-off party seasoned with crab cakes and fire-dancing to a chanterelle-and-egg breakfast on Sunday&emdash;will tell you that the magic of wild mushrooms is manifold.

"The mushroom contains a component of rocket fuel."

Spore in point: Witch's butter, a rubbery orange fungus also known as Tremella mesenterica, is actually a natural health tonic&emdash;in fact, mushrooms are being researched more and more for uses in modern medicine. "It's like a mushroom chewing gum with strong medicinal powers," says Phil Carpenter, a longtime officer for the Santa Cruz-based Fungus Federation and point man for one of Saturday's forest mushroom walks. "It's an immune response enhancer." Carpenter leads about 30 people though the redwood canopy to Pfeiffer Falls on one of three separate forays into Big Sur forests to uncover different fungi. The group includes members who have come from as far away as greater Toronto, Canada.

At another pause, Carpenter spotlights one of his favorite forest natives, one that looks like a piece of twisted brown leather on a stem. "I call it the Magyver mushroom," he says. "It contains a volatile toxin that's a component of rocket fuel. I could just see MacGyver stuffing a bunch of these into a tube to blow something up."

The MacGyver mushroom, a cousin of the elfin saddle, goes into the basket for later panel attention. In too go some "sewer gas" mushrooms, some colorful and stinky samples that grow on wood, and witch's hat, a little cutie that bruises black. They'll be joined there by sticky caps, waxy caps and candy caps for good measure.

Along the way, the general camaraderie of the group casts its own spell. Toni Gillespie and her husband Mark, also of the Fungus Federation, are amongst the people as charmed by the wild mushroom's entourage as they are the mushrooms themselves. "When my husband got into mushrooms I thought, 'That's weird,' " Toni says. "Then the people seemed so cool. And they know how to eat really, really well."

Soon the Gillespies are talking candy cap recipes with another forest explorer, speaking of soaking the dried caps in brandy and making cookies or ice cream. As the day progresses, the talk of taste begins to mushroom.

At the panel discussion, Jack Czarnecki, the chef/author of A Cook's Book of Mushrooms, preps palates with talk of cooking tips. (But not before producing a folded Ziploc of white truffles that he ferreted in from Oregon, sharing their paralyzingly rich smell with Point Lobos Ranger Chuck Bancroft and friends like an ancient secret.)

First he debunks a common misconception: Running water over mushrooms is not just OK, it's the best way to clean them&emdash;just don't soak them. Then he unveils his "holy trinity of cooking with mushrooms": Soy, salt, and a pinch of sugar to cut the soy's metallic taste.

An hour later the peak enchantment of the weekend kicks in, with the introduction of the competing chanterelle-based plates prepped by Big Sur's best chefs. The 10 entries include chanterelle pot pies from the Big Sur Bakery (which win for most creative dish), deep-fried Scotch eggs wrapped in a chanterelle duxelle from Fernwood Grill (which take best presentation), sautéed chanterelle and braised duck on crostini from Esalen (best featured dish) and chanterelle bisque with truffle shavings from Ventana's El Cielo Resturant (People's Choice award). And those dishes are just the beginning&emdash;all the comatose-quality treats and overall atmosphere will have Big Sur and beyond buzzing for months. Meanwhile, the universal good vibe seems enough to cement this event onto the community calendar&emdash;and to validate the lofty words event collaborator Jack Ellwanger used to open the event Friday night.

"For all the great things about Big Sur," he said, "There is nothing more great/ than the lowest we can be/ 'cause the chanterelle/ raises us to our highest art/ by bringing us to our knees."

TO LEARN MORE about local mushroom events, visit fungusfed.org. For more on the cook-off and other Big Sur events, visit http://www.pelicannetwork.net/chanterelle.htm