Mexico City Mushroom Foraging Lessons
Story by Lydia Carey, photos by PJ Rountree



On a mushroom hunting expedition in a forest hours from Mexico's capital city, a group tries to choose between deadly and delicious with local experts.


Mushroom Hunting in Mexico

"It's just like in a telenovela," says Nanae Watabe, "with members of a family that are really good and others that are really poisonous." This she says as she cuts into the flesh of a boletus mushroom that unlike their delicious cousins the porcinis, are deadly poisonous. The mushroom's spongy yellow interior turns mold blue when it makes contact with the air. Of the dozens of different mushroom varieties in this regional forest, there are only eight or nine that are edible at all.

Those are the ones we set out to find when we left Mexico City this morning with Nanae, mushroom hunter extraordinaire, and drove two hours to the Xalatlaco municipality in the Estado de Mexico.

poisonous Mushroom Mexico City

The long ride out to Xalatlaco winds through mist-covered pine forests where temperatures slowly drop the higher you go and the sky clouds over to a steel gray. Tiny towns that dot the path boast Christmas trees for sale, hotels, and barbacoa on their hand-painted roadside signs. Packs of dogs lounge lazily along the highway and the route is littered with restaurants offering trout and rabbit—specialties in this part of the state.

As our two big passenger vans pull up to the entrance of the La Mesita forest, two young men are just getting into a cab loaded down with baskets of mushrooms. They have already been up and back collecting and it isn't even 10 am. Our group, a more unwieldy collection of photographers, chefs and mushroom enthusiasts, is led by Nanae and her local guide, Andres Contreras, who has been hunting mushrooms here since he was a boy with his father and brothers.

La Mesita is part of a much larger stretch of land that is owned communally amongst the residents of several small towns in the form of an ejido — one of the many land reforms to come from Mexico's 1910 Revolution. Without a local guide, we'd likely be stopped and questioned about why 25 city slickers were suddenly invading this wild space with our sweat-wicking hiking wear and fancy water bottles, but with Andres we are tolerated.

La Mesita forest near Mexico City

Nanae has been exploring these woods for the past eight years with Andres and acts as a kind of liaison between local collectors and big-name chefs in Mexico City. Now she is taking groups of tourists to see the fascinating world of fungi just beyond the city limits. The wild mushroom trend has been blossoming among the city's fine dining establishments, and interest in hunting fungi has only grown since Covid made social distancing a key requirement of leisure activities.

"You're going to see just how long it takes to collect a kilo of the beautiful creatures," she tells us before we start off into the forest.

Mushroom Baskets and Spreading Spores

When we were texted the night before to bring baskets for collecting it sounded like some cutesy request for instagrammable woodsy photos, but come to find out there is an actual purpose to looking like little Red Riding Hood. The mushrooms shed spores as they are carted to and fro and we humans served as mushroom Johnny Appleseeds, spreading their progeny around the forest floor. We're also carrying plastic bags for collecting trash, to, in Nanae's words, leave the forest better off than we found it.

baskets of Mushroom Mexico City

"You don't find mushrooms," is her Zen-like reminder as we take off, "they find you."

The first edible species we come upon deceptively fast. These are Senoritas or tejamaniles, a pale tan mushroom that looks ever so delicate and whose top is slightly concave in the center.

Nanae Watabe mushroom hunter"We always want to cut at the ground, to cut it cleanly so when it gets to the kitchen it won't be full of dirt," says Nanae, "We also don't pull it out by the root because under the earth, there is a network called mycelium and this is the fruit of the mycelium. Pulling it out by the root will affect all the life under the ground. This network of mycelium is really important, the trees use it to communicate, nutrients pass through it, it's like the life of the forest, for everything that we see in front of us, that's why we collect them this way."

But how can you know if a mushroom is poisonous or not without eating it? Someone asks.

"The first rule is to come with a local guide like Andres, or someone like me who has spent lots of years collecting mushrooms," Nanae explains. "I have been taught by the master hunters of the region. So first of all, don't eat it. There are also books that can guide you but your first choice should be a local guide."

She pulls her guidebook of choice out of her pocket. The front cover of All that the Rain Promises and More: A hip pocket guide to western mushrooms pictures a tuxedoed trumpet player in the woods carting off a massive chanterelle with a devilish glint in this eye.

If all else fails, says Nanae, you can take a tiny piece of the mushroom and put it to your lips to see if your skin has any kind of reaction. But she repeats several times that she doesn't recommend this. It's more an apocalypse-survival kind of tactic.

Andres, local mushroom hunterA light drizzle starts to cover us and we pull rain jackets out of backpacks to try to stay dry. It's been raining for weeks in my estimation, but local guide Andres corrects me that it's only been really raining the past week. That's why today he says we won't find as many mushrooms as usual. By August the season will be in full swing when the delicious and high-priced morels pop out and by the end of November hunting will be done for the year.

An Expert's Eye Needed for Edible Mushrooms

If this is a low moment in the season, our group can't tell the difference. We find mushrooms around every corner. Nanae has already told us not to cut any without asking her first if they are edible but no one has any self-control. They bring her basketsfull and single specimens to ask if they are edible.

"No" "That one, no" "no, mi amor."

"It looks like it, but no" she repeats over and over. So much so that the novice hunters start to try to convince her.

"No? Even though it's the same color? You sure? it really looks like it."

 

"I told you that you would end up loving and hating me today," she says to their disappointed faces, "but I love you guys okay?"

nonedible mushrooms

As the morning wears on, a section of our group splits off, following the brisker pace of Andres who is at home in his childhood playground. The groups call to each other across the woods to keep track of the distance between them, because as Nanae fully admits, she has no sense of direction in the forest.

There are other things to forage along the path besides mushrooms and some in our crew have experience collecting other outdoor edibles. Fresh pine sprouts that suck out all the moisture in your mouth and tangy clover are among the things we find to snack on.

"For me this is the most organic," says Nanae chopping on a leaf.

A Delicate Balance on the Forest Floor

The youngest member of our group is Mia, who looks to be about 13. She's having a ball.

"For kids this is the best," says Nanae, "They just love it." And, she adds, tromping through the forest looking for mushrooms sort of brings out the kid in everyone.

But it's not all frolicking fun. The forest around us has visible scars from the illegal logging carried out with the sanction of the local authorities (for a bribe of course). Nanae and Andres talk again about how the trees and the mushroom mycelium depend on and interact with one another. The trees provide shade, absorb and filter water, and live symbiotically with the mushrooms, and the mushrooms transport minerals and allow the trees to communicate. Logging of the forest puts this delicate balance in danger.

edible mushrooms

"When you find a certain kind of tree you can also find certain mushrooms, so if you get rid of them .... Of course they are involved in decomposing, part of ending life and sort of converting it to organic matter but they are also part of starting life. It affects everything," says Nanae.

Local community members have lodged official complaints against the loggers and for now the cutting has stopped, but logging has been a constant threat to the area's ecosystem for the past six years according to Andres.

The groups finally find each other again and come together at the top of a ridge for our mid-morning snack of local tamales. Mushroom hunting is hard work, and we need our strength for the rest of the trek, but when we split again after the rest even forest calling doesn't work to bring the two groups back together.

mushroom hunting tour

We amble through the forest, over tracks created by the logging trucks and small paths worn into the soil from generations of hunters here. We feel pretty confident that we are going the right direction, but no one is completely sure. I, for one, have found zero edible mushrooms along the hunt, but instead am lugging a load of trash, mostly plastic bottles, that we found along our route.

 

"At the end of the day, even if you don't find anything, it's not important," says Nanae, "you are doing some forest bathing, a therapy developed by the Japanese, and you are having a digital detox since there is no signal."

When we finally find our way out of the woods, a massive, grassy field opens up in front of us. Under a white tent in the middle of the field, Andres' wife is cooking quesadillas on a comal. We shiver in the chill that has yet to lift on this gray day and drink the coolish beers that are waiting for us.

Andres checks the remaining baskets to make sure no one is leaving with poisonous mushrooms. Any cut mushrooms that are not edible will be left here in the forest so that they can disintegrate back into the earth. Wherever we have cut one, Nanae assures us, another will reappear in about two weeks, just about the time she will be back with another group of hunters, to start the process all over again.

IF YOU GO:

Nanae Watabe is currently offering mushroom hunting tours outside of Mexico City through Devoured.com.mx


Lydia Carey is a freelance writer and translator based out of Mexico City who spends her time mangling the Spanish language, scouring the country for true stories and "researching" every taco stand in her neighborhood. She is the author of Mexico City Streets: La Roma, a guide to one of Mexico City's most eclectic neighborhoods and she chronicles her life in the city on her blog www.MexicoCityStreets.com.

Related Features:
The Truffle Hunt in Umbria - Susan Van Allen
The Unveiling of Mezcal: Visiting Oaxaca's Artisanal Distilleries - Lydia Carey
Finding Nature in Mexico Near the Mega Metropolis - Tim Leffel
Lunch from the Surf: Foraging for Seaweed on the California Coast - Sherry Shahan


See other Mexico travel stories from the archives


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