Cook's Adventures: Searching for Chanterelles

Forager Langdon Cook scouts for the Pacific golden chanterelle
Langdon Cook  |   September 2013   |  FROM THE PRINT EDITION
Autumn color—Pacific golden chanterelles

The golden chanterelle just may be the favorite foraged food of Pacific Northwesterners. Our forests are loaded with chanterelles, and even the indoors crowd is motivated to get outside and stray from the safety of marked trails in search of this signature delicacy.

There’s a simple reason why we’re flush with chanterelles: It turns out the mushroom has a yen for young Douglas fir forests. The trees and fungi live together in mutual bliss, exchanging nutrients. After more than a century of intensive logging, the woods of western Washington and Oregon are packed cheek by jowl with second-growth Douglas firs cut on short rotations, and come fall, these gloomy timberlands are brightened by jaunty dabs of yellow.

Labor Day marks the beginning of the chanterelle harvest for many a casual mushroom hunter in our region, though hardcore pickers know where to look weeks before that. Even with a bustling commercial trade (Washington state is probably the largest exporter of chanterelles in the U.S.), most recreational pickers have no problem locating a patch to stock their own larder. Scout for Douglas fir forests on timberlands or Department of Natural Resources land—and remember to bring a compass; it can be dark, dense and disorienting in a managed timber plot.

We have several varieties of chanterelle in our region, but the bread-and-butter species is the Pacific golden chanterelle (Cantharellus formosus), and thankfully, it’s easy to identify. Field marks to look for include the warm egg-yolk color, seductive champagne flute shape and ridges rather than gills under the cap. As with any species of wild mushroom, it’s best to join a seasoned pro the first time out.

Chanterelles are a treat for the home cook. Their hint of apricot is unusual among mushrooms (although not among the chanterelle family, which includes several species with stone fruit aromas, including black trumpets and yellowfeet), and this mild sweetness paired with a salty cut of pig can be irresistible. I make a rustic pasta dish with slab bacon, chanterelles and green peas; and at Sitka & Spruce, Matt Dillon’s gratin of chanterelles with a root vegetable medley, salt pork and Swiss chard is not to be missed. Surf and turf is another way to make the most of the mushroom taste; I’m a big fan of chanterelles tossed with scallops, parsley, breadcrumbs and a little sherry.

Like mushroom hunting in general, a quest for chanterelles is an exciting treasure hunt in the woods—and for many of us, the sight of gold peeking from the moss is reward enough.

Langdon Cook’s newest book The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America (Ballantine Books; $26) comes out in September. Find his recipe for Wild Mushroom and Root Vegetable Gratin here.