It took a little over two hours of four-wheel driving, over and through mountains, into National Forest and, eventually, wilderness area, to make it 12 linear miles and find the tank trap that marked the beginning of our on-foot leg. It was a long walk in, loaded down with the gear necessary to assess the brook trout population of a small headwater stream—backpack electrochockers, buckets, nets, clipboards, scales, measuring boards. My gaze scanned the fringes of the trail for points of interest.
Mast looks good this year. Acorns were plentiful. The odd chestnut sapling graced the shoulder. The yellow of poplar leaves speckled the understory, suggesting impending fall.
And there were bright orange mushrooms everywhere, in and near the trail. On a hunch, born of research into edible mushrooms and foraging, I pushed the fungi over gently with my foot, breaking them off at the ground and revealing their underside, which further confirmed my theory—chanterelles. Suddenly, a long, heavy trek was well worth it.
Chanterelle mushrooms are among the most popular and prized wild edibles, and they exhibit some very favorable characteristics—they’re easy to see and identify, and they’re widely available.
Their bright orange coloration is the first indication of a chanterelle. The second most obvious tell-tale is the distinct ridges (not gills) on their underside. These ridges are thick, forked, and blunt, and extend down the stem. The cap is often frilly and irregular, and the cap and stem are usually trumpet-shaped, with upturned edges. Chanterelles never grow on wood, and always grow independently on the forest floor, though they often grow near other individuals. Where you find one chanterelle, there are often more nearby. Finally, chanterelles have a sweet smell, like that of a peach or apricot.
Thankfully, there are very few mushrooms that resemble chanterelles. The most dangerous look-alike, the Jack-o-lantern mushroom, is very easy to distinguish from the real thing. Jack-o-lanterns have true gills that aren’t forked and don’t run down the stem. They also always grow on wood, which may or may not be underground. Though these look-alikes aren’t deadly, they can bring ferocious gastric distress.
There is also a false chanterelle to trip up foragers. However, this mushroom is not toxic. They just don’t taste as good as a true chanterelle. The main difference is that false chanterelles do not have a sweet smell. They also have true gills, but they are forked and somewhat blunt, resembling the ridges of a chanterelle. The caps of false chanterelles are often darker than true ones, and are usually more round and regularly shaped, with downturned edges. Again, thankfully, though these false chanterelles should be avoided whenever possible, consuming one doesn’t necessarily come with any negative symptoms, but has been known to cause mild gastric distress in some individuals.
Most often, chanterelles grow in moist deciduous forests with dense leaf litter. Like most fungi, chanterelles form relationships with individual trees, called mycorrhizal relationships, so they are most common in old-growth forests where these relationships have had plenty of uninterrupted time to establish these relationships.
Chanterelles in Virginia grow throughout the summer and early fall, and growth is entirely dependent upon rainfall. Wet summers usually produce more mushrooms; and dry ones, fewer. Still, if chanterelles grow in your area in the summer, it’s best to search for them before the yellow and red-orange poplar and maple leaves fall to confuse the eye of the forager in late summer.
COOKING & PRESERVING
If you find yourself with a haul of chanterelles, you'll want to make the most of them.
The first step in consuming these mushrooms is cleaning them. Using either a mushroom brush or a toothbrush, rinse the mushrooms in cold water and gently brush dirt off of the delicate mushrooms.
Chanterelles are toxic until they’ve been cooked. So once they’ve been cleaned, if you wish to preserve your bounty, you’ll need to sauté them with butter in a skillet before vacuum sealing or freezing them.
If you wish to eat them right away, sautéing them in butter is a great way to experience the unmasked, prized flavor of chanterelles. Otherwise, the sautéed mushrooms go greatly in risotto, with rich meats, and even as the base flavor for ice cream.
An easy-to-identify bounty likely populates a hardwood forest floor near you. So, as you stroll through the woods this summer, keep your eyes open and take full advantage of the chaterelle’s bright color and wonderful flavor.
*Originally published in The Rural Virginian