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“Fungus Faceoff” at the 2nd Annual Big Sur Foragers Festival in Big Sur, CA

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On Saturday, January 18, 2014, our day began with a leisurely drive from the Hofsas House in Carmel-by-the-Sea. It was a gorgeous day with comfortable temperature and the sun shining brightly. The drive was along PCH with beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean with rolling rocky cliffs and sea arches carved by years of crashing waves. Another interesting sight was seeing cattle along the hillsides. The only other place I have seen this mix is the Big Island of Hawaii. The cattle had a great vantage point while they munched away or relaxed in the sun.

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The small town of Big Sur is encompassed by carved rock and deep green forests of redwood trees. The Ventana Inn is perched above the forest with vistas overlooking the ocean and hosted the “Fungus Faceoff” on the patio of The Restaurant at Ventana. The setup was done perfectly with a nice flow through the line and food & wine interspersed throughout. There was an array of mushrooms on display, probably picked during the “Foraging Hike in the Forest” earlier that day. The friendly competition featured chanterelles and other fabulous fungi dishes prepared by Big Sur Roadhouse, Hyatt Carmel Highlands, Esalen, Big Sur Bakery, Fernwood Resort, Bernardus Lodge, Carmel Valley Ranch, The Restaurant at Ventana, and Ripplewood Resort. Let’s take a look at what they made:

Ripplewood Resort presented Russian Boar and Truffled Wild Mushroom Rillettes served with red onion quince marmalade, horseradish crème fraîche, and apple on rye toast. Beautifully presented, it had just the right balance of flavors and textures – rich pork rillette, sweetness from the onion marmalade, stunning yet creamy crème fraîche, crisp yet tart apple, and nutty flavor from the rye bread. It was a great bite but the mushroom flavor was lost. While this was my second favorite dish of the event, it went on to win the “Most Complex Flavors Dish” award.

Big Sur Taphouse presented Prosciutto-Wrapped Wild Pacific Shrimp and Cold Mushroom Tapenade Crostini. The shrimp was perfectly cooked with a nice snap. The prosciutto added a slight saltiness and smokiness which accentuated the natural sweetness of the shrimp. The mushrooms were good, but were not incorporated into the dish enough. Since the shrimp was pretty big, it would have been better butterflied, then combine the mushrooms and baguette into a stuffing, and finally wrap it in the prosciutto. But big points for beautiful presentation! This won “Best Cooking Technique” award.

Carmel Valley Ranch presented Porcini, Crimini, Oyster, Hedgehog, Trumpet and Chanterelle Crostini with radish and mustard greens. It looked like pulled pork but was screaming with mushroom and garlic flavor. This won “Most Local Ingredients” award.

The Restaurant at Ventana presented Yellow Chantrelle Mushroom and Black Truffle Gel "Explosion" with a Dried Black Trumpet, Crimini and Panko Crust and a Mushroom Macaroon. The “Explosion” was my favorite of the Faceoff as it was one bite literally exploding with mushroom and truffle flavors. The outside was fried to golden brown perfection. The best way to eat this was to put the whole thing in your mouth. If you bit into it, it would have “exploded” all over your clothes. The inside was very viscous but I loved every savory second of it. I wanted to eat more, but wanted others to experience it too. This won “Most Inventive Use of Ingredients”. The mushroom macaroons were delicious as well. It reminded me of a salted caramel macaroon with a slight savory flavor. I went back for seconds on this one. The Restaurant at Ventana also was the Judges’ Pick for Celebrity Chef of Show.

Hyatt Carmel Highland presented Wild Mushroom Cannelloni Pasta with Herbs. The filling had black trumpet, chanterelles, and hedgehog mushrooms, spinach, and mascarpone. My husband absolutely loved this dish; might be because he’s Italian. I thought it needed a little more seasoning with the filling, but overall it was good. This won the “Best Vegetarian Dish” award.

Big Sur Bakery presented Everything Carrots with roasted carrots dusted with seeds, shallots and nutritional yeast and served with a dollop of wood sorrel cream cheese. Due to my allergies, I was unable to taste this but my husband said that the carrots were roasted to perfection but he didn’t care for the cream cheese dollop. This won the “Most Unique Dish” award.

Big Sur Roadhouse presented Lemon Pepper Chowder with pulled pork, hedgehog mushrooms, black trumpets, yellow chanterelles, and South Coast Meyer lemons. The chowder was chalked full of mushrooms. I loved the added pork flavor but the lemon flavor didn’t match with this dish; maybe if the soup were more broth-based and chicken was used instead of pork. This won the “Best Hot/ Spicy Dish” award.

Esalen Institute presented the retreat’s staple rye bread, made with wild yeast, toasted and topped with herb salad, wild fennel aioli, pickled beets, and a smoked mussel. The mussel was beautifully smoked and tender as could be. The salad tasted like it was freshly picked from the field. The rye bread was chewy and flexible, very different texture to rye bread that you’re used to. It was very hearty with a nutty flavor. This won the “Most Artistic Presentation of Dish” award.

Fernwood Grill presented a dish of couscous, nuts, seeds, house-cured bacon drizzled with hibiscus syrup. This reminded me of a hearty trail mix with chunks of bacon. It was a hearty, yet fun dish. Love the bright green spoons! This won the “Best Table Display” award.

Bernardus Lodge presented Goat Cheese Polenta with maitake and yellowfoot mushrooms with garlic brioche croutons. I loved the goat cheese polenta. It was so creamy with just the right consistency. The mushrooms were fantastically sautéed to bring all the sweet mushroom flavor to the forefront. This won the “Most Easily Adapted to Home Cooking” and the highly coveted “People’s Choice” awards.

The event also served as a fundraiser for the Big Sur Health Center. The community's non-profit health center will receive the proceeds from the foraging events to support the continued presence of local health care services. This year’s Big Sur Foragers Festival raised more than $20,000!

We ended our afternoon with a leisurely drive back to Carmel-by-the-Sea. This was a wonderful event to celebrate delicious, edible fungi! Can’t wait to see what they do next year!

For more information:
Big Sur Foragers Festival
46896 Highway One
Big Sur, CA 93920
831.667.4210

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