By Mike Dechter
In late August of 2013, the Coppa Café in Flagstaff advertised a special “forager’s feast”. The restaurant is a favorite for my Francophile wife, and I was excited to see how well they could combine haute-cuisine gourmet cooking with down-low foraging. For the past five years I had been honing my skills at mushroom identification, and had come to a point where I had learned a wide array of different mushroom species and was safely collecting some choice edibles. I was curious to see what Coppa Café could create with local mushroom finds, and what level of interest it would get from the community.
The 2013 monsoon season in Flagstaff turned out to be a good year. Ranking as one of the wettest summers on record, the forest floor amidst the northern Arizona mountains cranked out carpets of bright orange lobster mushrooms (Hypomyces lactifluorum), large fan-shaped oyster mushroom (Pleurotus pulmonarius), and clusters of velvet foot mushrooms (Flammulina populicola) — what the Japanese call enokitake — along the base of aspens.
The foragers feast was planned as a 6-course meal made up of locally foraged mushrooms and garden harvest foods selected and prepared by the Coppa kitchen, headed by Brian Konefal and Paola Fioravanti. They went out on a limb to plan and prepare an advanced RSVP meal, but the interest was there, and when we arrived the place was packed.
Menus were provided, and the first course started small with a course of oyster mushrooms and shaggy manes (Coprinus comatus) topped with edible flowers. It was a savory appetizer that blended the unique mushroom textures. The creamy butter-rich shaggy mane sauce contrasted with firm, poached fresh baby oyster mushrooms in oil. Not being a chef, but loving wild food, my mind was blown.
The next course was a gnocchi with pancetta and a fresh garden pea sauce. As the plates were served, the chefs came by each table with a bundle of dried and smoked Caesar’s Amanita mushroom (Amanita “cochiseana”) stems to grate over the pasta. While extremely daring and creative, it was also mouthwateringly good. And this pattern continued with a course of veal loin with Barrow’s bolete (Boletus barrowsii), grape leaves, juniper sprigs and oyster mushrooms. Finally, chef Brian announced that the foragers had brought in a giant puffball (Calvatia booniana) from today’s finds, and he had prepared it by baking in the oven with an herb salt crust. The large orb was then ceremoniously cracked open and the steamy mushroom mass inside was sliced and served with soft, delicately stinky cheese.
It was the highlight of my 2013 mushroom season because it combined many of the things I truly enjoy – wild mushrooms, good food prepared with care and creativity, and local flavor. The night of the feast left a great impression on me, and as I told Brian and Paola the next season, I wanted to encourage that kind of daring behavior.
Northern Arizona mushroom collecting can be feast or famine. Businesses cannot depend on the fickle bounty of wild mushrooms in Arizona. In drought years when there may be scarce fruitings, incorporating wild foods into a menu can be difficult or simply not feasible. Yet, in 2014 a strong monsoon pattern again settled into the region, and by late July I found myself trudging a heavy basket full of lobster and oyster mushrooms back to my car for the first basket-full harvest of the year.
I cleaned them and packed them and the next morning I brought a few pounds of them into Coppa Café. I wasn’t sure what to expect or what to say and I was a little nervous. I don’t know much about restaurant management, and it may not have been an option to bypass the planning and ordering process with wild mushrooms. But after introducing myself and sharing my finds, I found Brian and Paola to be extremely enthusiastic about mushrooms. So, I shared what I had and explained a bit about how the lobsters were the first of the year, and in exchange I picked out some of the unsurpassable dessert macaroons for my wife and me.
As the season progressed, I brought in more and more finds. There was the morning I hit the large patch of red-capped Rocky Mountain king boletes (Boletus rubriceps) under sunny skies after a few days of rain. I took some and left some, but still had enough boletes to fill my dehydrator and bring in a bundle to Coppa. Not long after, I brought in a few pounds of some fresh bullet-shaped shaggy manes (Coprinus comatus) which had cropped up alongside a lawn at the local park, some enokitakes, and oyster mushrooms that were flushing from the aspen trees. I brought these directly to Coppa on my way home, and Brian and his staff were happy to see all of it. By the time I left the restaurant, Brian already had plans to make a ragout sauce and a list of other dishes. As more rains came I came across a rambling patch of blewits (Clitocybe nuda) on the high slopes, more boletes including both B. barrowsii and B. rubriceps, and started bringing in other species for Brian and Paola to invent with including the edible and quite interesting-looking crown-tipped coral mushroom (Clavicorona pyxidata). Finally as the summer stretched into fall, Caesar’s amanita mushrooms became more abundant, and fire morels (Morchella sextelata) began to be found at the nearby Slide Fire and farther San Juan burn.
As the season wound down, my wife and I made plans to celebrate our ten-year anniversary, and it was no real stretch for us to decide on Coppa Café. Thanks to all of the mushrooms I had brought in throughout the season, we were treated to a full meal of our choice. We planned to wine and dine the night away, and when it came time to order we asked for… what else?… the mushrooms!