Words and photographs by Ehren Seeland
“These look like cooked chicken.” My companion pinches a chunk of mushroom between two fingers and lifts it to his mouth. “Hmm, tastes like meat too,” he notes, licking a creamy red sauce from his forefinger. I peer down at his open taco, thinking of the wave of horror that an unsuspecting vegetarian may experience at first bite of our fungi-laden breakfast. Of course, the shock would soon fade to relief once the realization set in that they were not, in fact, noshing on animal flesh, but edible miracles of nature that add a healthy dose of vitamin B12 that is sometimes lacking in a meat-free diet.
It’s a cloudy Sunday morning in San Antonio Cuajimoloyas – a community in the Sierra Norte region that is roughly an hour and a half outside of the city of Oaxaca. This town is located about 20 minutes up from the municipality of Benito Juárez and plays host to the esteemed annual Feria Regional de Hongos de Silvestres (regional wild mushroom festival).
Ecotourism is a popular undertaking in the central valleys of Oaxaca. Communities from San Miguel del Valle to Teotitlán del Valle have embraced these efforts and offer an array of activities from hiking, biking and rock climbing.
The Feria Regional de Hongos de Silvestres first took shape in 2000, and features a balanced combination of local tradition, ancestral knowledge and innovative cuisine. This celebration runs over the span of a couple of days and ticket prices for the 2015 event were $760.00 pesos for two days, or $370.00 pesos for one. Our two-day tickets include participation in different activities like a mushroom hunt with local guides, workshops, panel discussions, a chance to peruse various vendor stalls selling everything from succulent plants to fungi-infused chocolate, two comprehensive afternoon meals that feature mushrooms as the culinary centerpiece and one night of accommodation in a cabana in Benito Juárez (complete with fireplace).
The previous day was spent ambling for hours through thick brush so that our team could move curious hands through damp grasses and under fallen logs in order to discover tiny (and some not-so-tiny) woodland treasures. In all, our group of mostly Mexican locals, outside of myself and a mushroom enthusiast from the Bay Area of California, collected over 140 types of fungi that we loaded with care into two open baskets and carried victoriously to a waiting blanket. This trek back to the main judging site took place under the summery Oaxacan sun, as well as under the watchful eye of a curious burro that slinked behind us on a dirt path that wound through prickly grasses and crimson wildflowers.
While 140 kinds may seem impressive at first mention – especially when laid out side-by-side like honored soldiers returned from battle – it’s only a fraction of the more than 8,000 types that exist in the state of Oaxaca. A French-mushroom-expert-turned-Oaxaca-local, Johann Mathieu of Mico-lógica, kneels over our carefully arranged haul, eyes widening as he explains the difference between the edible, medicinal and poisonous varieties on display on the blanket in front of us. Though our collection is decent, we do not take the title for most types collected. The winning team hoots to our side after their count of 229 is calculated, and we stifle the news of our defeat under a tent, hands wrapped around a mug of steaming chocolate, as the rain begins to fall.
Our Sunday covers a workshop by Mathieu around the growing and harvesting of a variety of mushrooms, a discussion by a panel of fungi experts, a local dance performance with live band, shopping for fresh produce and amazing baked goods (I’m looking at you, Boulenc) in the stalls that line the main courtyard, and a final feast that includes over a dozen types of mushrooms cooked in rich mole sauces, sealed into tortillas with melted cheese, and chopped up in a fresh salad with sweet peppers and pineapple.
Satiated, we pack up the truck, hair scented with wood smoke and fingernails shadowed with soil as we wind our way down the bumpy mountain road. An expanse of verdant hills run alongside our collective windows at a sprinter pace as we lean the backs of our heads into our seats. With full bellies, boosted immune systems, and energy levels running high from the additional shot of vitamin B12, the truck engine hums as we pick the dirt from our nails and reflect back on the meaty goodness of the bounty of fungi on offer over the weekend.