By Tom // Posted 14 July, 2010 in: Food + Drink
Maybe it’s because of the name – chanterelle – that I always assumed these wild mushrooms were exclusively a California thing. Surely such a frou frou term couldn’t describe anything growing in the meat-and-potatoes midwest, where you might more expect something hardier, say a beefsteak (which, incidentally, doesn’t seem to grow in the Midwest. But I digress). My brother Mike, who lives in California, basically assumed the same, until a week ago when, while wandering the family land in northern lower Michigan, he happened upon a handful of the unmistakable orange fungi. As soon as Martha and I got wind of his discovery, the three of us headed back out into the woods and the hunt was on.
While not a party to the fungiphobia that so infects most of our country (and about half of my family), my wild mushroom gathering experience is limited to the mighty morel, a mushroom which – even when plentiful – does a good job of disguising itself on the forest floor. I am convinced that it is in fact invisible to the direct line of sight, appearing only in one’s peripheral vision. What a relief to hunt the chanterelle, then, which is not nearly so cagey; its bright orange yellow stands in strong contrast to the forest around it. Provided there actually are chanterelles where one is looking, there’s little risk of not seeing them.
And chanterelles there were. We must have hit their seasonal peak (our mushroom guide unhelpfully identified the season for chanterelles as “summer and fall”) because it seemed like every 15 feet or so we would walk on the hill crest, someone would spot a new group of the golden mushrooms poking through the ferns and grass. Mike – the experienced mycologist in the group – soon developed a theory that the chanterelles were somehow connected to maple trees. I remained a little dubious, largely due to my inability to consistently identify said trees (yes, I have trouble identifying maple trees).
Whether or not we cracked the code of chanterelle growth, we sure found a bunch of them. There was no scale available, but the bag I was carrying felt like it contained two, maybe even three, pounds of mushrooms.
Dumping that bag on to the kitchen table, the most impressive thing beyond the sheer quantity of fungus was the aroma: it was as if someone had cut open an apricot right under our noses. Mike said this aroma is not as strong in the California chanterelles he has found; this being my first chanterelle experience, I couldn’t make comparisons, but I did find the aroma striking for its pleasantness – none of the mustiness I usually associate with wild mushrooms.
Given my inexperience, I wasn’t exactly sure what to do with our chanterelle bonanza in the kitchen. We decided on two approaches: the larger chanterelles would be sliced and grilled, while the smaller ones would be quartered or kept whole and sauteed with olive oil, garlic, and chicken broth to make a kind of mushroom sauce/side dish.
But before any of that could be attempted, the chanterelles would need to be cleaned. The fluted gills running up the sides of these mushrooms are adept at catching dirt, and the bases of their stems won’t ever shed it no matter how much you wash. Mike showed us a technique for getting the bases of the stems clean, using a paring knife to shave off the layers of dirt.
The chanterelles were fun to cook with; their meaty, solid stems were firm under my knife, not delicate in the way of hollow-stemmed morels (note: if your morel doesn’t have a hollow stem, you might just have a verpa. Don’t eat it.) In spite of the vast quantities of liquid the mushrooms gave up as they cooked – liquid which frustrated my plans to brown the mushrooms and deglaze with chicken broth – they remained substantial in the finished dishes, only a little diminished in size. Their flavor was like their smell, hinting of apricots but with a unique woodland taste. Both the grilled and sauteed chanterelles made perfect accompaniments for venison harvested from the same land by my other brother, Kevin.
I’m sure the presence of wild chanterelles in the forests of the upper midwest is old news to the seasoned foragers out there, but for a greenhorn like myself the discovery was pretty exciting: a new bounty to harvest from the woods! Now I just need to find some good mushrooming land in Minnesota.