• Posted by Eric Tucker on May 25th, 2008, 10:57 AM

    Photo by James Whiting

    Photo by James Whiting

    I doubt you think of Oakland, California, as a happening spot for foraging for golden chanterelles. But the city is named for the tree that is associated with the favorite habitat of the golden chanterelle, the California live oak. There are still scattered pockets of oak groves throughout the populous lowlands of Oakland, but the prime area for oaks and chanterelles are the Oakland hills. Especially the back (east) side of the hills that separate Oakland from Moraga and Contra Costa counties. If I’m not working or cycling, you can usually find me on the backside of those hills in search of my favorite mushroom.

    While many of you were digging yourself out of a foot of snow in January, my cohorts and I were braving torrential rain, cold (by our standards 45 degrees) and mud, lots of mud, in search of these apricot-hued beauties.I teach hands-on cooking classes every couple of months or so at Millennium, a popular vegetable cuisine restaurant in San Francisco, where I am also chef. In late January, we held an intensive mushroom class, with mushroom-hunting forays for interested students. One was with Todd Spanier (the self-proclaimed King of Mushrooms) of Rei di Fungi, his mushroom wholesaling company. We explored the San Mateo hills in hopes of finding black chanterelles under the tan oaks above Palo Alto. While a very informative foray with some interesting lesser edible and non-edible species found (I found a number of Amethyst Laccaria, which made it worthwhile for me) we struck out on the chanterelle golden and black front. We did get caught in a freak snowstorm at around 1200 feet, an

    Photos by Jenn Accettola

    Photos by Jenn Accettola

    experience that alone was worth the price of admission.

    For some stupid reason, on our second foray, I broke with one of the key tenets of mushroom foraging: don’t show any one your favorite spot! What was I thinking? “There will probably be a lot of mud and very little of anything else.” I was wrong. I was also thinking most folks would have no idea how to get back to the area, which was sort of right. The chanterelles were plentiful (we gathered 25 pounds easy) as was the mud and rain. The brand we were after (Cantharellus formosus) is quite a stout, resilient mushroom. There were very little of anything else: a couple tufts of candy caps (Lactarius rubidus) and some sodden masses that were once various species of milk caps and insipid Suillus, turned to gel by the rain. Though rain-soaked, the mighty chanterelles were firm and vibrant in their gold orange hue and redolent of apricot-meets-pumpkin-pie and black pepper. We found everything from thumb-sized buttons just below the groundcover (which we left for another day) to chants the size of your face, barely popping out of the duff.

    We climbed up a steep ridge to a prime spot in a valley below some cow pastures. This area, probably due to the extra help our bovine friends leave in the pastures above, is the most prolific chanterelle habitat I’ve ever encountered; a small lush grove of oaks and bays. Once one’s eyes become adjusted and know what to look for, orange-gold caps peeking out from the dirt and leaf dander of the forest floor, they are easy to find. They were, in fact, almost too easy to find. My mud loving compatriots, (a half dozen Northern Californian hotties. Think Girls Gone Wild Mushroom Foraging Edition, if it helps you get to the end of this article) about half of them foraging newbies, didn’t have to work too hard for their keep. Another obvious clue were the big stick piles that the wood rat calls home; this usually means finding a bumper of chanterelles. (We’re not the only animals that like these mushrooms.) The rats drop pieces of mushroom and spore around their den which eventually take and fruit if their dens are under the oaks.

    California’s common variety of golden chanterelle (Cantharellus formosus) is found throughout most of the Pacific Northwest. What makes this subspecies different from the common Cantherellus cibarius on a macroscopic level is size. I’ve found beauts the size of your face, while still being as firm as the smallest button, nary a maggot in sight. (Porcinis, pigs ears, and morels are notorious for being maggot dens when they get large.) The cibarius (common golden chanterelle) usually has a smaller cap, in the half- to two-inch diameter range, but are, like the formosus, a really dense, firm mushroom. It is said that the cibarius is more fragrant than its Pacific-coast cousin. I have received cases of Canadian chants at the restaurant from British Columbia and Nova Scotia that must have been the most fragrant chanterelles ever, considering they’d been out of the ground close to a week by the time I got my grubby mitts on them. I would also speculate that terroir plays a part in the fragrance and flavor of chanterelles and other mushrooms. (“Geez, he had to mention terroir! Go back to Cali and stay there, sipping your crappy chardonnay, walking your golden lab named Chanterelle, eating artisan cheese while listening to Steely Dan in your Volvo wagon!”) Think about it, how is the dirt not going to affect the flavor of mushrooms?

    So, what do you do with that bumper crop you just foraged? A damp dishtowel and old newspapers are your new best friends. Trim off any spots on the mushroom that look past their prime. Scrape off as much dirt as you can with the back of a pairing knife then scrub the mushrooms with your damp towel. Chanterelles are pretty tolerant of water, so if you picked your chanterelles in a downpour, the mud can be easily cleaned off by quickly swirling them in a bowl of water. You may need to change out that bowl of water a few times. Place your mushrooms on a newspaper-lined pan and let them dry out at room temp for a few hours. I store them in the refrigerator covered with a dry towel or newspaper. If they are in good shape, they will hold for a week no problem.

    The best way to store your bounty is to freeze them, cooked. If you freeze them raw, when they defrost, their texture will be mush. At the end of the day, those mushrooms are mostly water; the ice crystals will rupture their cell walls, leaving you with flabby ’shrooms. So slice your chanterelles and dry sauté them over a high flame with a scant bit of olive oil. They will release a copious amount of liquid. Pour off that liquid into a pot and reserve. Sauté them some more until fairly dry, then cool them down and place them in a freezer bag. Good to go, these will keep in your freezer for months.

    Chanterelles have a very prominent flavor that can stand up to other big flavors without being overpowered. To my palate, they are suggestive of apricots, toasted nuts, black pepper, pumpkin pie, pine needles, forest floor, and rosemary. Some liken the texture of the flesh to poultry, it’s definitely meaty and dense. So play off those suggestive flavors when thinking of ingredients and seasonings to pair with chanterelles. On to the liquid, which if you pour down the drain, we will come to your house and confiscate your frozen stash! That liquid is fantastic chanterelle essence! Either add it to stock or freeze it in small containers as-is, using it as needed to enhance a soup, sauce or stew. At Millennium, we cook the liquid down to syrup and emulsify it with a little olive oil. Try mounting that syrup with butter for a very decadent treat served with some gnocchi or a piece of seared Salmon. At the restaurant, we would drizzle that syrup over a fall root vegetable and mushroom roulade and serve it with a chanterelle brandy cream.

    If this has stimulated an appetite for chanterelle foraging, hook up with your local mycological society (mushroom club). You always want to forage with folks who know what to look for and what to avoid, such as mushrooms that look similar to chanterelles, but will put you in the hospital if ingested. While you are out there, pick up a can or bottle or two and drag it out of the woods, leaving it a better place than when you arrived.

    Eric Tucker is the founding and current chef and co-owner of Millennium, one of the nation’s premier fine dining vegan restaurants. Eric is the principal author of The Millennium Cookbook and The Artful Vegan. A graduate of The Natural Gourmet Cookery School in New York, his culinary passion has been to elevate vegetable-based cuisine to the sublime. He is a resident of Oakland, were he is opening an organic wine bar soon.

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