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.
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