One of our favorite sayings in May tells us to look for morel mushrooms when the newly emerging oak leaves are the size of a mouse’s ear. Associations between seasonal happenings in nature can be interesting and fun as well as easy to remember and downright helpful.
Our daily walks through our woods reveal a plant reaching full bloom that tells us it is time to look for the chanterelles. Wild leek flowers are now at the peak of their blossoming. These creamy white globular clusters of flowers (like a typical onion or chive blossom) growing on 10-inch-tall stems lead many people to wonder what plant they belong to simply because their leaves dry up and disappear well before the flowers come into bloom.
Growing among patches of thin, delicate, grass-like sedges, the golden chanterelles are “flowering,” too, in moderate abundance. In fact the recent heavy rains of June and cool weather are perfect for a good crop of these excellent fleshy fungi. Frequently one has to search carefully for these mushrooms that are somewhat hidden by the low-growing carpet of green vegetation and especially last year’s papery tan leaves of the maples and beeches that have not yet decomposed.
The answer to the question, “What is edible, choice, common in the mid-to-late July hardwood forest, is the color of egg yolks and has a delicate fruity perfume?” is the highly prized chanterelle mushroom. For some strange reason few people take to the woods now, perhaps in fear that there may be a mosquito or two waiting for them.
The scientific name of this firm delicious mushroom is Cantharellus cibarius, pronounced “can-tha-RELL-us si-BARE-e-us,” meaning a small cup or vase that is “food.” In fact most of the larger specimens have caps that are slightly depressed in the center, having the shape of a shallow funnel in cross section.
Their egg yolk color is a very good field mark along with the general shape and especially gill structure. The gills on the underside are narrow, blunt-edged, shallow and often forked. They tend to tie into one another and also extend down the stem a bit. The stem is about the same color as the cap or paler and there is no ring or bulb at the base. The flesh is whitish or ivory colored.
The outer edges of a typical cap are slightly wavy or irregular. In fact, there are some that are lobed. They have a smooth, moist, satiny texture. A good description of the shape of a chanterelle mushroom is that of a fluted golden vase. The older these mushrooms become, the more likely they will be invaded by a host of larvae of tiny insects. A standing rule is to never consume mushrooms that exhibit even the slightest traces of insect damage.
An obvious and sensible question asked by a beginner mushroom hunter is, “Can I confuse the edible chanterelle with a similar but poisonous mushroom?” In southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois there is the poisonous Jack-O-Lantern mushroom that may look similar. However there are several easily seen differences between the two. Charlotte has never found the Jack-O-Lantern in Door County.
The Jack-O-Lantern grows on wood, appears in clusters, has a round evenly formed cap that is inrolled and has a bright pumpkin orange color. Most notable are the gills on this poisonous one are sharp-edged and thin, rather than blunt-edged, thicker and shallow.
Chanterelles always grow on soil and not on wood and frequently show veining of the gills. Their spores in a heavy print will be pale yellow while the Jack-O-Lantern will have white spores. By all means don’t experiment with yellow mushrooms if you have the least bit of doubt!
In making a spore print, first cut off the cap at the top of the stem. Place it with gills facing downward on a piece of white paper and then cover it will a large glass or empty cottage cheese container to keep it undisturbed and prevent it from drying out. After several hours or overnight, remove the cover and carefully lift the mushroom cap from the paper. You should find a good sample of spores that have dropped from the gills, telling you the color.
There are a few hints that will help make you a better mushroom picker. One, always use a sharp knife to cut the mushroom stem near the bottom instead of pulling it up out of the ground. By cutting them you bring home mushrooms that are cleaner and free of soil. Preparing them for cooking later will be much easier.
Two, never put your freshly harvested mushrooms in a plastic bag. The high moisture content will not allow them to “breathe” and they will become a slimy mess if you are out for a long time. We always use waxed paper bags to carry them home. Other choices can be a paper bag, a large bucket or a wooden basket.
Some people claim the flavor of chanterelles is slightly acrid. We find them to be excellent when cooked slowly in butter or seasoned olive oil. Never eat them raw. They have a faint apricot odor when fresh. Charlotte uses them in her cream of mushroom-onion soup and they are fantastic. Check the price of chanterelles in any gourmet food store or online and you will be shocked at their cost.
A male scarlet tanager sang and sang early this morning from the hardwoods north of our house. Its song sounded like a robin with a sore throat. Nevertheless we took that red bird’s “aria” to heart, as though he was reminding us to go looking for more chanterelles today.
Hiking the woods in late July and August can be very rewarding, filling your lungs with fragrant fresh air, your soul with bird music and your collecting basket with chanterelles.