A chanterelle changed my life. I was walking in north country woods when I spotted it. And then, letting my eyes adjust to the possibility of seeing one, I spotted the rest of THEM. Irregular yellow forms trumpeting out of the dull leaf litter here and there, then up over a crest--everywhere. It was, I later learned, a fantastic season for chanterelles, much like the one we’re having now in the northeast, and much unlike the intervening years. It was, I've always felt, the bait on the end of the hook. If I'd known the frustration of waiting half the calendar year for mushroom season to come only to have a drought put a damper on it, I might not have fallen for fungi as hard as I did. But that first year was pure magic.
Learning to ID those first chanterelles was one of the most exciting but also nerve-wracking experiences of my life. Luckily I had a ringer to call in, a friend from grad school who had interned with the likes of Paul Stamets. This was important because truly, the only thing I really knew about wild mushrooms going in was the prevailing wisdom of my parents, which is also the wisdom of our broader society: “Don’t touch them, don’t eat them, they could kill you.” That last part is of course true, although interestingly it is more true of plants than fungi. A large majority of plant species are on the continuum of inedible to deadly for humans, while only 3 percent of described mushroom species are known to have caused poisonings.
Especially when you take into consideration the very common and abundant plants that can cause skin rashes from the slightest exposure, and compare that to the zero fungi species in North America that pass poison through skin contact, our risk assessment does seem skewed. No one dives between a toddler and a daisy to warn them about the danger of picking flowers, though any number of beloved garden plantings could land a child (or adult) in the hospital or worse if consumed. Rather we assume, correctly I hope, that we are all capable of learning and teaching the differences between safe and unsafe plants, as humans have always done, and that the joy of picking flowers is worth the risk involved in education.
To this day I do not take the chance of mushroom poisoning lightly. I'm sure I've thrown away more edible mushrooms than I could say over the tiniest of misgivings, leaning hard on the forager's maxim, "When it doubt, toss it out." But much like learning to identify the plants in my yard, getting familiar—that is, building an intimate, tactile familiarity—with my favorite mushrooms has been a long-term and deeply rewarding project. In reality it has reshaped me, starting with the way I notice the world around me and ending up playing a role in major career decisions.
Chanterelles were my first love, but specifically I imprinted on the golden chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius). I love many mushrooms and every chanterelle I've tried, but the trademark aroma of apricots and soft, almost sweet taste of the genus are on finest display in the goldens, in my opinion. They also present an excellent baseline for learning chanterelle identifiers.
Cantharellus cibarius - golden chanterelle
Notice how the gills, considered false gills, do not resemble the flat, deep blades of a portobello, and cannot be easily scraped from the mushroom. The false gills are disorganized and forking, and importantly they are "decurrent," which means they run down the stem.
However this is not the only type of chanterelle gill presentation. From the top view--walking through the forest--a smooth chanterelle (Cantharellus lateritius) can look much the same as a golden, with yellow-tending-orange, irregularly shaped but curvaceous caps. Underneath though, they lack even the false gills, hence their common name.
Cantharellus lateritius - smooth chanterelle
Neither is color a good indicator of chanterelle-ness. While most species are golden hued, these cinnabars (Cantharellus cinnabarinus) are just as prized by many, for flavor as well as their bright flamingo beauty. Besides their smaller stature, cinnabars have other easily discernible chanterelle features: false, decurrent gills that cannot be cleanly removed from the mushroom and a sweet, fruity aroma, especially when warmed in the hand.
Cantharellus cinnabarinus - cinnabar chanterelle
Finally, and new to me this excellent chanterelle year, there are these insubstantial little numbers I believe to be Cantharellus minor owing to their tiny stature and slender stems. Since they grow less gregariously and never much larger than this one, they wouldn't make it into my bag regardless of their designation.
So what features do all these mushrooms share? Can you break down the family resemblance? At the risk of driving home the point too hard, I would note again that they all smell like my version of heaven, which may not be your version of heaven, but certainly they smell good, and in a definitively more fruity than fungal fashion. Once you've encountered the fragrance, you'll always know it.
Next, they all grow on the ground, never on dead wood, and never in more than a small clump. Jack-o-lantern mushrooms are considered a lookalike, but they generally grow in clusters, have true, non-forking gills, and their interior flesh is orangish at maturity, whereas most chanterelles have white flesh inside.
Cantharellus cinnabarinus - cinnabar chanterelle
Lastly, and most importantly in many ways, no chanterelle has true gills. Below is a false chanterelle (Hygrophoropsis aurantiaca), which as you can see bears a reasonable resemblance for the uninitiated: It is orangish, sometime flaring and trumpet-shaped, the gills are forked and somewhat decurrent, and it grows on the ground in similar habitats. The most important distinction are the deeply bladed, fragile gills (technically very elongated pores, but that's another story)
Hygrophoropsis aurantiaca - false chanterelle
So what to do if you find a chanterelle, or ideally many chanterelles, this summer? Well first, be 100% sure in your identification. If you're a novice, find yourself an in-person ID ringer--mycological societies and extension offices are two excellent sources, as are *certified foragers* like myself. If it's something you intend to continue doing, it's definitely worth getting a guide book--we carry this standby one for foragers and this well-illustrated general guide. There are some excellent free online resources like the keys at www.mushroomexpert.com, but they generally require some expertise to use. DO NOT use apps or google image alone to identify mushrooms for consumption, as both can be highly unreliable.
Certain ID in hand, the answer of what to do with chanterelles, for me, is sauté as many as you can and mix into as many dishes as you can while the bounty lasts. I've been making a chanterelle pasta sauce with garlic, a handful of herbs, and cream infused with minced dried apricot.
mixed chanterelle butter
For longer storage, drying is not recommended. However it is easy and worthwhile to make a large batch of chanterelle butter to freeze. Clean the mushrooms and cut into small chunks, then sauté in butter (or your preferred substitute). When the mushrooms are soft and have released their liquid, add herbs if desired. Take more cold butter cut into pieces and stir briskly to emulsify. Keep stirring until it cools to room temp, then decant into small containers (4 oz ball jars work well) to freeze. Thaw throughout the rest of the year that these beauties don't just pop up for the picking.
*A note about chanterelles and sustainability*
In our neck of the woods none of the species highlighted above are endangered. What's more, taking a mature mushroom is akin to picking a ripe apple, not felling an apple tree, so it doesn't endanger the fungus to harvest it. That said, it's important to remember that lots of forest creatures (and other humans!) enjoy the same food you do, so try to leave at least half of what you find and don't take more than you need. For bonus points, used a perforated basket or mesh bag for harvesting to allow the mushrooms to sporulate along your path through the forest.
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