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Chanterelle Dreams: The Secrets of One of the Most Coveted Mushrooms

There are undoubtedly many reasons why chanterelles are at the top of the mushroom heap in popularity, but chief among them is their great flavor.
 
 
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The following excerpt is fromChanterelle Dreams, Amanita Nightmaresby Greg A. Marley (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2010).

There are certain diverse pleasures that mark summer in New England. The Fourth of July parade with sirens, banners, bands blaring, and sunburned toddlers scrambling for candy tossed from passing floats is, to some, a signal of the formal shift from late spring to full summer. For others, the first raking of Maine blueberries in early August ushers in the midpoint of the season when we no longer need to explore the depths of the freezer for berries to make a pie or cobbler. For those of a fungal bent, summer's true arrival cannot be acknowledged until the first chanterelles poke warm golden caps from beneath their leafy covers. Of course, being mushrooms, with all the predictability of a Siamese cat, the date on which summer arrives in the guise of my first chanterelle omelet can vary a fair bit from year to year, strongly dependent upon the vagaries of weather. Here on the coast of Maine we can generally count on the first harvest by the second week in July, after the strawberries and before the first blueberries.

There are undoubtedly many reasons why chanterelles are at the top of the mushroom heap in popularity, but chief among them is their great flavor. Other reasons are their relatively common occurrence in Maine's woods and the ease of identification. The combination of vase shape, bright golden coloration, and blunted ridges in place of knife-like gills make chanterelles distinctive and easily discerned. The bright color and their habit of growing in scattered clusters make them easy to spot on the forest floor.

When I am walking through a forest looking for chanterelles, my eyes scan the woods in an arc of perhaps thirty yards, knowing that their bright coloration will shine out through the predominate greens and browns of the forest floor like stars in the black heavens. Once I spot the first mushroom, I slow my pace and examine the area around the first mushroom, carefully looking for other chanterelles. Since they fruit in groups, I often find others partially hidden in the leaves nearby. Contrast this searching style with morel hunting; there is a world of difference. Morels come into the world with all the camouflage of a motionless cottontail rabbit in the leaves. It almost requires that you feel one get crushed under your bare feet before your eyes can take it in. Even after spotting the first morel in an area, it requires careful, slow examination to see the others secreted in the nearby duff.

A third reason for chanterelles' popularity as an edible is their predictability. They regularly fruit in the same location in successive years. In a good chanterelle habitat, I know which tree to check in the forest and which side of the tree to examine in order to find the same patch of chanterelles I have collected there a dozen times over the past twenty years. This personal observation mirrors the results of a long-term study on the impact of chanterelle harvesting carried out in a coastal forest by the Oregon Mycological Society. They also have recorded regular fruiting of the Pacific golden chanterelle in the same small area over many successive years.

Taxonomy

The name chanterelle generally refers to the mushroom known as the golden chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius), but also is applied to the genus Cantharellus and the whole family of mushrooms collectively known as “chanterelles and their allies.” This includes the genus Craterellus, home of the famous black trumpet mushroom in addition to several other notable edibles, and the genus Gomphus, home to the aptly named pigs ears (G. clavatus) and scaly vase chanterelle (G. floccosus). The final member of the chanterelle allies is the uncommon blue chanterelle (Polyozellus multiplex), a beautiful and fascinating mushroom of the northern fir forests. The best known and talked about are members of the Cantharellus and Craterellus genera, in part because almost all of the prominent edibles are here. With DNA research bringing into question taxonomy that has long held fast, the two main groupings of the chanterelles have been divided along lines that, fortunately, are primarily visible to any naked eye. Those mushrooms with a hollow stem are included in Craterellus. Those mushrooms that are vase shaped and solid are in Cantharellus.

Chanterelles are found worldwide, wherever the habitat supports tree species that form mycorrhizal relationships with fungi. Various species of chanterelles and craterelles are collected and widely eaten by people on all the world's major land masses except Antarctica and Greenland. There are about forty named species in North America and around ninety species of the two genera worldwide. A more exact number would be dependent on a whole lot of learned and very opinionated taxonomists coming to agreement on what will define a distinct species within this cosmopolitan group. I, for one, will not be holding my breath waiting for consensus from a group of taxonomists.

The most prominent chanterelle in Europe and central and eastern North America is the golden chanterelle, Cantharellus cibarius. Cantharellus is a name derived from the Greek kantharos, meaning goblet or drinking cup, and refers to the funnel or vase shape of the fruiting body of members of this family. The specific epithet cibarius is Latin for edible.

On the west coast of North America, the Pacific golden chanterelle, Cantharellus formosus, reigns supreme. Formerly lumped in with C. cibarius, it is now recognized as a separate species. Both are considered equally desirable and are nearly indistinguishable as they approach the sauté pan except that the Pacific variety lacks a distinct odor. When people in the United States speak informally of chanterelles, they are generally referring to one of these two species. In their comprehensive and detailed monograph on chanterelles, David Pilz et al. included a table of some eighty-nine different common names in seventeen languages used for the golden chanterelles around the world. This wide recognition is a reflection of the high regard for the edible nature of this mushroom.

In the recent survey I sent out to gather information regarding the wild mushrooms collected, eaten, and most favored, the golden chanterelle was, by far, the most preferred edible mushroom. This held true for all levels of mushrooming experience, from beginner to seasoned. I talk about mushrooming with many people who attend the walks and talks I offer. For a significant majority, the reason they give for attending is to expand the varieties of mushrooms they know and are comfortable eating. If they collect and eat only one mushroom in Maine, it is generally the chanterelle.

Description

Chanterelles have several distinct characteristics that set them apart from other similar mushrooms. The first is the vase shape to the mushroom. Unlike the traditional mushroom with a thin long stem supporting a broad hamburger bun-shaped cap, chanterelles start with a stem that is narrow at the base and immediately flares out to the rim of the cap where, in a mature body, a depressed center gives the impression of a shallow drinking cup.

There is little distinction between stem and cap as the blunted gills run down the stem. The rim of the cap is often regular and somewhat enrolled in a young mushroom and irregularly undulated or wavy in a mature cap. The second feature is the spore-bearing surface, known as the hymenium. In a “traditional” mushroom it would be composed of a series of closely arranged knife-like plates called gills. Chanterelles have what are described as rudimentary gills or blunted folds that run up the stem and then fork, often dividing into two as they climb the stem. The third area of distinction is the chante-relle color. Common names from around the world often refer to the color by comparing the mushroom to other yellow to golden-colored creatures in nature--egg yolks, chicks, or chickens. The color is not a true yellow, but a rich golden yellow, darker in older specimens or ones in greater light and paler in young and deeply shaded mushrooms. The last area of distinction is the aroma. I almost always smell a mushroom when I pick it, a habit so reflexive as to be almost unconscious. The rich apricot odor of the chanterelle amply rewards this habit; it is a smell that no other mushroom attains. The golden chanterelle typically grows to 3 inches wide, though occasionally much larger specimens are seen in ideal habitat. The height of a mature chanterelle is about one and a half times its width.

Other Chanterelles and Look-Alikes

Though the golden chanterelles are by far the best-known mushroom in this group, there are a number of other, generally smaller, eastern chanterelles that bear mention. There are no toxic members in the Cantharellus or Craterellus genera. The related Gomphus flocosus, scaly vase chanterelle or wooly chanterelle, causes gastric distress in some who have eaten it, though others eat this species with relish.

The winter chanterelle,Cr. tubaeformis, is very popular in northern Europe and is gaining in popularity with those Americans who have tried it. The small size of this species is partially made up for by its habit of growing in fairly dense troops. We find it predominantly in association with hemlocks from late summer through late fall.

The smooth chanterelle, C. lateritius, is common in southern New England and the mid-Atlantic region. It looks very like the golden chanterelle but without the blunted gills. Its hymenium surface is smooth to only slightly ridged. The choice flavor is little different from that of the golden chanterelle.

Cr. ignicolor and Cr. lutescens are two close look-alike small yellowish funneled chanterelles found, at times, in large trooping numbers warranting their mention here and in the collection basket for dinner. They often are called the yellow foot chanterelles.

Caveats

The jack o'lantern mushroom, Omphalotus illudens, is a somewhat vase-shaped bright orange mushroom found growing in dense clusters on the ground at the base of a tree or from buried wood. Beware! This toxic mushroom has been mistaken for a chanterelle by careless novice mushroomers. When eaten, it causes 12-24 hours of intense gastrointestinal distress. Differentiate it from chanterelles by the growing habitat of dense clustering and the fact that it has true, knife-edged gills that do not fork.

Ecology, Habitat, and Occurrence

The fortuitous fact that chanterelles appear in the same small area in successive years says a great deal about their lifestyle. Chanterelles are mycorrhizal fungi living in symbiotic relationship with trees, and more specifically with the roots of trees. This stable, long-term relationship is of benefit to both fungus and tree and helps to explain the consistency of fruiting. In New England we see them commonly in association with pine, spruce, and hemlock as well as the hardwood species of birch, oak, and beech. In a wet year, they some¬times fruit heavily under white pine. Though not able to support fruiting in an extremely dry year, the mycelium of the fungus lives on with the tree roots and sets fruit in the next wet season. Contrast this with a true saprobe such as the shaggy mane (Coprinus comatus) that might fruit heavily in an area for a year or two, but once the available food source is broken down by the fungus, the mycelium dies out and the hapless hunter is forced to find a new location for the main ingredient in shaggy soup.

For the past twenty years there has been an active debate regarding the best and most ecologically sound manner in which to harvest mushrooms. Is it better to pluck them from the forest duff or to carefully cut the stem, leaving the base still attached to the mycelium? In the study mentioned earlier regarding the long-term growth patterns of chanterelles in Oregon forests, after thirteen years the study did not find any decline in annual production of fruiting bodies on plots where the mushrooms were “plucked” from the ground when compared to an adjacent control plot where they were not harvested. The researchers did note a very slight decline in future mushroom production where chanterelles were cut at the base with a knife as a method of harvest.

The question remains regarding the possible impact of over-harvesting contributing to a decline in chanterelle production in our forests. This debate has, at its root, the observed reduction in chanterelle production from forests in industrialized areas of Europe. This decline, reported since the 1980s, has likely been in place much longer. The causes of the diminished chanterelle harvest have not been proven, but several strong positions have received most of the attention. The first is the contribution of acid rain on the growth of mycorrhizal fungi. The second is the increased levels of nitrogen in the atmosphere and increased use of nitrogenous fertilizers on forests. In controlled studies, trees grown with additional fertilizer tend to reject their mycorrhizal partners because they no longer require the contribution of extra nutrients, so there's no reason for the trees to share their food pantry.

One question remaining is what effect, if any, does an annual heavy harvest of the mushrooms have on long-term mushroom production? At this point the studies looking at this have shown no significant decline in mushroom production from regu¬lar harvesting of mushrooms. The removal of fruiting bodies does not dimin¬ish the refruiting in following years, and the reduction in spores released by mushrooms has not been shown to reduce continued fruiting. A study about to be published demonstrates that the vast majority of spores released by a mushroom fall within a few feet of the parent. The act of collecting and carrying mushrooms out of the forest in an open basket while they are dropping spores may vastly improve spore dispersal. A key factor in the future fruiting of mycorrhizal mushrooms seems to be the practice of minimal disturbance to the forest floor by avoiding packing down the soil surface or disturbing the duff layer when collecting mushrooms.

Look for your first chanterelles of the season as summer settles in to stay. In the northeastern United States that means generally by early July; earlier in southern interior sections; and later along the cooler downeast coast, up north, and in the higher elevations. There seems to be a positive correlation between a warm wet spring and a good chanterelle crop, though this is also contingent on the rainfall patterns in the summer. The peak of the season is in mid-August, and they will continue to fruit abundantly in good (meaning rainy) weather until mid-September and occasionally later. The golden chanterelle is a slow-growing, slow-maturing fruiting body. From the onset of a tiny button until the mature cap succumbs to rot may take well in excess of thirty days. One study showed an average life of the fruiting body of forty-five days with some living in excess of ninety days in cool moist weather. Unlike the mega-dump of spores released in a few days as seen in most fleshy mushrooms, chanterelles mature spores slowly in successive layers over a longer period of time. Therefore, if you come upon a cluster of small buttons, leave them in place and return in a few days or a week to collect them in a more mature state. Fortunately, our chanterelles are somewhat resistant to insect invasion. I rarely see chanterelles infested with worms unless they are quite old and even then they are hardly ever riddled. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the abundant slugs that delight in finding the chanterelles a day ahead of me.

Chanterelles typically appear singly, loosely grouped, or scattered across an area of forest floor. Occasionally you will see them growing in small clusters, and in good habitat I also find them growing along a line or arc through the forest for several yards, perhaps following a tree root. In 2007, I came upon a 15-foot sweeping arc of closely spaced golden beauties. There were almost eighty mushrooms in that small arc. Compare this with the toxic jack o'lantern mushroom, a chanterelle look-alike, which grows in large dense clusters from a common base off of buried wood.

Edibility, Preparation, and Preservation

Thoughts of the first breakfast of chanterelles begin just after I have eaten my last spring-collected morel. When the first russulas are out and the early amanitas are fruiting, I know the chanterelles are not far behind. Chanterelles are worth waiting for. Their bright golden color in a good split ash basket can be excelled only by their heady aroma when you place your face close into the basket. A basket of chanterelles evokes the scent of an equal weight of fresh picked apricots. For me they recall the sinful pleasure of jumping the fence as a child to raid the apricot tree in the neighbor's yard in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and to smell the sun-warmed fruit as I took the first bite.

Chanterelles have a delicate flavor, and shine when they are blended with food and spices that respect their understated character. Simple preparations are the order of the day: scrambled eggs or omelets, cream sauces, or dishes as simple as a basic sauté with butter, salt, and pepper. Begin by wiping away any lingering dirt and debris from the trimmed mushrooms using a brush or a dry or slightly moist towel. Never wash them under running water or soak your chanterelles! They have a tendency to take on water easily. I generally slice all but the smallest of the caps, though the size will depend on the dish to be made. Young caps are the most tender and they get slightly tough as they age. Unless they appear quite dry, I often start with a dry sauté in a pan over medium heat with a touch of salt. Heating the mushrooms will cause them to express their water and further cooking allows the moisture to evaporate. Add butter when most of the moisture is gone and sauté for 5 or so minutes, adding salt and pepper as desired. This is the starting point for almost any recipe and a fitting endpoint for a simple preparation. The flavorful components of the chanterelle are fat soluble, so the step of simmering in butter is vital to release and preserve the flavors. The alcohol in wine will release other subtle flavors. From there add simple herbs such as tarragon or cilantro, cream, and mild cheeses.

Chanterelles make excellent soufflés or quiche. If you use onion or garlic with them, use a light hand so as to not overpower the mushrooms. I sometimes combine chanterelles with other delicately flavored mushrooms. My favorite combination is with the sweet tooth, Hydnum repandum, with its light flavor and a distinctive, almost crunchy texture. The chanterelle is one mushroom that will not stand up to a tomato-based sauce.

If you face the enviable prospect of being overrun with excess chanterelles, resist any impulse to dehydrate them for future use. I often see dried specimens devoid of color, aroma, and character in gourmet foot stores. It is a sad and wasteful use of a scarce resource! Everything that makes this mushroom memorable is lost in the drying process. Instead, consider a light sauté in plenty of butter followed by sealing serving-size portions in freezer bags before labeling and popping them into the freezer. They retain their essential goodness for several months and will bring back warm memories of summer well into winter.

Chanterelles are about summer and recognizing the gifts of the season embodied in a strikingly beautiful fungal form. One of these gifts comes through the activity involved in the gathering of the mushrooms. A trip to the forest to immerse yourself in the cool, shaded woods will calm your mind and is just the therapy needed for the summertime rush. Chanterelles are not to be collected in haste, while dashing between meetings. Walk the dog, bring a friend and a picnic, and revel in the process. One of my favorite summertime collection sites is alongside a lake with granite ledges. I bring a suit and dive in when I get too hot. Once home with your catch, the process of preparation for the table need not take tedious hours. Chanterelles lend themselves to quick, light, summertime meals. A glass of wine, a chanterelle omelet, and--well, you provide the rest.

The Perfect Chanterelle Omelet

Chanterelles are to eggs what basil is to tomatoes; a pairing made by a generous and gastronomic God. For an omelet, there is no need to get too fancy with other additions--keep it simple and enjoy the blend.

1-2 cups fresh chanterelles, cleaned and sliced somewhat thinly
1-2 tablespoons butter
4 large eggs at room temperature beaten with the water
1 tablespoon water
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1/2 cup of a mild-flavored cheese, sliced or grated
Chopped parsley as a garnish

In a shallow sauté pan or omelet pan with medium heat, melt the butter and add the sliced chanterelles with a little salt. Chanterelles can hold a large volume of liquid, so if they seem very moist, I often start with a dry sauté in the hot pan and add butter as the moisture is evaporated. Either way, the mushrooms will begin to release their water as they cook, and you want this to evaporate off. When they are done, remove the mushrooms to a dish and return the pan to the medium-low fire. Add additional butter if needed to coat the pan and pour in the eggs. Keep the heat low enough to cook the eggs slowly without scorching and as they firm, add back in the warm chanterelles and the cheese and a coloring of parsley. Fold over and give it enough time to melt the cheese and ensure that the eggs are fully firm.
 

Greg Marley has a passion for mushrooms that dates to 1971, the year he left his native New Mexico and spent the summer in the verdant woods of central New York. Since then, he has become an avid student and teacher of mycology, as well as a mushroom identification consultant to the Northern New England Poison Control Center and owner of Mushrooms for Health, a company that provides education and products made with Maine medicinal mushrooms. Marley is the author of Mushrooms for Health: Medical Secrets of Northeastern Fungi. He lives and mushrooms in Rockland, Maine.
 
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