Published Fall, 2007
Edible Portland

The headline on June 22, 1999 read “Fungi Move Faster than Fiscal Issues in Capitol.” The breaking news? A bill passed by the State Legislature naming the Pacific Golden chanterelle, unique to Oregon’s wild mushroom harvest, the state fungus. Things weren’t slow in the Rose City that day; Oregonians just take their mushrooms seriously.

Chanterelles grow exuberantly in the Northwest, and the golden (or yellow) variety is easy to find and identify—if you can persuade someone in the know to tell you where exactly to look. Wild mushroom hunting is a secretive sport, and its enthusiasts would sooner disclose their Social Security numbers or computer passwords than share the precise location of hard-won troves.

Impervious to cultivation, chanterelles do not survive or reproduce outside of the forest. They are a delicacy brought on by autumn’s cooling rains and ushered out by the first deep frost, fruiting between September and November in the Northwest.

For chefs and foragers, they define the fall season, much like asparagus heralds spring.
The chanterelle has a trumpet-shaped cap with a wavy, rounded margin and sunken center. In lieu of true gills—the straight panels that hang down from the underside of a common mushroom cap—forked ridges, low and blunt, descend the chanterelle’s stalk. As it develops, the mushroom produces spores on these shallow, widely spaced veins.

But for all of its distinctive features, the chanterelle is somewhat elusive. Primarily creatures of the canopy floor, the fleshy saffron-stained caps might peek out from a tumble of twigs, piles of decaying leaves, or the thick moss carpet under deciduous and coniferous trees. Until I spy my first of the season, I feign indifference, eyes systematically sweeping the ground as I stalk the firs, pretending to enjoy a casual stroll through the woods.

My method—“Where’s Waldo?” meets the alien in“Predator”—eventually yields a landscape dotted with clusters of orange sherbet-colored caps, many of them underfoot! Once calibrated, mushroom eyes are masterful at spotting the habitat of the chanterelle, coordinating with the nose to suss out its fragrant, buttery aroma, tinged with apricots.

Chanterelles reappear in the same places year after year when they are collected carefully, without raking or trampling the forest floor. The preferred method is to cut the mushroom at its base, rather than pulling or digging it up, which can irreparably harm the mycelium, a web-like warren of fibers that is the vegetative part of a chanterelle’s “network.” Harvesting every mushroom in a patch is no more harmful to future colonization than plucking every apple from a tree. But if you agitate the plant, it won’t fruit.

Mycologists and mushroom sleuths encourage passing over the occasional mature chanterelle, or tapping a harvested cap to encourage spore discharge onto fluffy moss or rich humus. While there is little scientific evidence to support such speculations, it’s reasonable to theorize that these spores play an important role in propagating the species.

From Forest to Kitchen
Chanterelles are meaty and chewy, their nutty complexity best appreciated when they are simply prepared. Here’s what I like to do: After cleaning the caps and trimming the stems, slice or tear a few handfuls of chanterelles into bite-sized pieces. Add them to a hot pan along with a little knob of butter or a glaze of olive oil and a big pinch of salt. They will sizzle briefly, then soften and release a surprising amount of liquid. Don’t pour it off; chanterelles are delicious cooked in their own juices. Without stirring, reduce the liquid around the mushrooms until there is none. Brief additional slow-browning will improve the texture and concentrate the flavor of the chanterelles.

Now add a large spoonful of crème fraiche or a generous splash of cream to loosen any flavorful bits left behind in the pan, and coat the mushrooms in rich, velvety goodness. During the final cooking as the cream reduces, add a small finely-minced shallot, a squeeze of lemon juice and a hint of tarragon. Pile the silky sauté on toast, slip morsels between thin squares of homemade pasta or scatter them over a pizza.

Mushrooms are among the more mysterious of life forms. Greeks believed they came from Zeus’s lightning, appearing inexplicably after rains. In the Middle Ages, the circular patterns formed by some mushrooms were called “fairy rings” and were thought to be the work of “little people,” who performed magic rites and danced around in the dark of night. Though chanterelles may appear similarly enigmatic, it is only because they are underground, amongst the sword fern and salal, and out of sight. So keep your eyes open, because I’m not about to publish my sweet spot.

Recipe for New Potato and Chanterelle Gratin