Behold the chanterelle, golden and elegant. A mysterious fungus that sends mushroom hunters and slugs alike on a hunt through the duff of oak groves and hemlock stands, fending off mosquitos that hang and whine in the muggy July air.
Culinarily, there is nothing like a freshly picked golden chanterelle. The bruised tonnage that reaches New England speciality stores from the western U.S and Canada pale in insignificance next to a fresh picked specimen from our local forests; meaty and harvested in its prime. Chanterelles are at once sweet, fruity, and rich and has an ethereal scent reminiscent of dried apricots and the forest floor from whence they came. Sautéed in butter and white wine, added in a cream sauce, or cooked between flaky layers of potatoes au gratin the mushroom comes alive, releasing its decadent scent into whatever medium it happens to find a home in.
It was the chanterelle that first sent me ducking off hiking trails in Downeast Maine while still a student at College of the Atlantic. I had heard about the mushroom, rumors of its abundance and fickleness, while working as a waiter at The Burning Tree on MDI. Egged on by an older prep-cook, a veteran mushroom hunter himself, I made my first excursion into the oft-misunderstood world of wild mushroom foraging.
The first step to becoming a successful chanterelle forager is to leave behind the fables of poisonous toad-stools that your parents and society taught you when you were young. The Anglo-induced fear of the mycological world is prevalent in our culture, and can take some work getting over. This isn’t to say that one ought recklessly forage. There are mushrooms like the Destroying Angel, an Amanita mushroom aptly named for its liver dissolving properties, that make uninformed mushroom hunting a potentially deadly hobby. However, if you can tell the difference between an eggplant and an apple you can tell the difference between a chanterelle and a destroying angel. It’s all about being educated on the distinguishing characteristics of the chanterelle: ridges instead of gills that descend along the stipe, smooth caps that turn concave with age, and a distinctively fruity scent are all good indicators. One rule trumps all others when foraging for edible mushrooms: when in doubt throw it out. Don’t eat a mushroom that you are not 100% positive of the identification. That disclaimer aside, a quick look at the cuisines in Eastern Europe, Italy, and France reveals that the fear of eating wild mushrooms is shockingly absent in these countries; mycophobia is not a universal sentiment.
It was with great anticipation that I walked off into the coastal woods of Hancock County with my good friend Mike Kersula this past week. My sense of the chanterelle, where and when it will grow, has honed over the years since my first excursion. Armed with a couple of pocket knives and a half-dozen produce bags we maneuvered around rotting logs and sphagnum moss, past oily bunches of poison ivy with caustic leaves stretching for human skin. It didn’t take long before the first familiar yellow knobs were spotted popping out of some hemlock duff, a wider glance revealing a string of fruiting mushrooms stretching into the distance along the same path of mycelium.
The mushrooms were immaculate; perfect specimens unblemished by feeding slugs. Only occasionally would the chanterelles be housing families of pill bugs, hiding from the rain beneath their canopies, their numbers scattering as my knife entered their vicinity. Mike and I gleefully followed the trail, through the woods and into a clearing of blueberry bushes; the chanterelles choosing to fruit among the brambly stems of another quintessential Maine wild food. We filled our sacks while carefully leaving behind both young and mature specimens to live out their fruiting and propagate their spores. A responsible forager never takes everything.
There is nothing as satisfying as a successful hunt for chanterelles. No berry, fern, root, or polypore drums up my foraging fervor like the chanterelle. A quick weigh-in revealed a harvest of over twelve pounds. A huge success considering we were in the woods for only a couple of hours. What providence that the first species of mushroom that I foraged and ate, that entranced me with the mycological world, was also the first species of mushroom sold to restaurants by North Spore and featured on menus in Downeast Maine and Portland.
As August comes into itself and July dwindles into memory, so does the Golden Chanterelle wane to its seasonality. Like all great treats of the seasons, soon all that will remain of the chanterelles will be what is dried and packed into jars, pickled, or frozen. Alas, so begins the season of the Black Trumpet…
A version of this post was first published on the North Spore Blog in July of 2014.