Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Mushrooms aren’t just part of Oaxaca’s cuisine but its heritage

July to October is the season for mushrooms in the mountains of Oaxaca. Days are humid as clouds build up to an afternoon of rain. But despite the weather, people arrive at this time of the year to explore and to forage for mushrooms in the state’s cloud forest, located just a few hours from Oaxaca City.

And on the first weekend of August this year, a festival will celebrate mushroom season and the culture in the towns of San José del Pacifico and San Mateo Río Hondo.

Oaxaca mountains
In the misty mountains outside Oaxaca city, the rainy season brings all sorts of mushrooms to the region — edible, toxic and hallucinogenic.

“Our main mission in the Wild Mushroom Festival is to meet every year to jointly celebrate the arrival of the rainy season and, with it, the mushrooms,” says one of the festival’s founders, Ariadna Pinacho Cruz, who also runs a beautiful restaurant on the outskirts between San José and San Mateo called Huitzil.

Huitzil pays homage to the area’s mushroom culture: its open-air dining room surrounded by wooded land showcases local mushrooms in beautiful broths, alongside steak and blended with pasta.

Pinacho remembers learning how to forage and identify wild varieties from her father.

“As a child, he used to take me to the forest for a walk to look for mushrooms during the rainstorm,” she says.

Menu for Huitzil Restaurant in San Jose, Oaxaca
Mushrooms are a big part of the culture in the mountains of Oaxaca. Ariadna Pinacho Cruz’s restaurant, Huitzil, reflects that heritage in its menu. Pinacho is also a founder of an annual festival dedicated to the region’s fungi.

The pine trees, mist, rain and mushrooms of the environment here brings “a little piece of the forest to the palate of our diners.”

Pinacho has been running the event since 2020 in collaboration with two partners, Cesar Kevin Pérez Pacheco and Erik Gasgar. The festival consists of a guided walk with local mushroom growers and mycologists. Attendees get a unforgettable encounter with the fungi kingdom and learn how they function in an ecosystem.

The Wild Mushroom Festival’s experts teach the importance of fungi as food and how it fits in with local gastronomy. They also identify the toxic fungi in the region, and discuss mushrooms’ general impact on the health sector and society.

They also teach the importance of the sacred mushrooms from the genus Psilocybe within the culture of San José.

Bus in Oaxaca
The Oaxaca towns in which these mushrooms are abundant, like San José del Pacifico and San Mateo Río Hondo, are small, rural, tight-knit communities.

For decades, Oaxaca’s mountains have famously been a destination for pilgrims seeking to explore the “magic” properties of mushrooms thanks mainly to American amateur mycologist Robert Gordon Wasson, who traveled to Oaxaca in the 1950s to investigate rumors of a hallucinogenic variety in the region. His article in Life Magazine, “Seeking the Magic Mushroom” (1957), about his experiences at a velada (vigil) in the village of Huautla with the Mazatec healer María Sabina, inspired travelers worldwide — including many rock stars and celebrities of the era — to pursue the world of mushrooms.

San José del Pacifico didn’t become known for its mushrooms until the 1970s, when an eclipse drew visitors to this town above the clouds. As with Huautla, there is a tradition of using “magic” mushrooms. Cruz remembers trying them for the first time when she was 14.

“They are very good for curing diseases, healing the mind, spirit, soul, clearing the conscience and many more benefits,” she says. “It is a healing introspection that I do only once a year, every August 22. First I take a temazcal [an indigenous traditional sweat lodge experience], like my dad, to detoxify my body, relax and prepare myself for the medicine.”

“Later it is the taking of the sacred mushrooms in the forest to be able to connect with Mother Earth and have your own healing,” she says.

Anna Bruce is an award-winning British photojournalist based in Oaxaca, Mexico. Just some of the media outlets she has worked with include Vice, The Financial Times, Time Out, Huffington Post, The Times of London, the BBC and Sony TV. Find out more about her work at her website or visit her on social media on Instagram or on Facebook.

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