Morel mushrooms used to be my fungal focus in springtime back in Michigan, but the Maine woods just don’t produce them, so for many years I have tried to find a local substitute. Chanterelles now fill that need. My requirements for a morel replacement are:
- Easy to spot in the woods. Chanterelles are yellow-golden and stand out “like stars in the black heavens” on the forest floor.
- Easy to tell apart from any toxic look-alike. The closest one is the Jack-O-Lantern, Omphalotus illudens, which grow in
clusters on buried dying wood. These mushrooms are much larger and the gills are much sharper, Chanterelles have blunt, forked ridges rather than gills. Their similarity is decurrent gills/ridges–they run down the stem. Also, the Jack-O-Lantern is not a killer– it will just make you wish you were dead.
- Good eatin’. Chanterelles are known the world over for their awesome flavor. Why go to the trouble of bushwacking through the Maine woods if the reward is only mediocre? They have a fruity aroma and are a delicate addition to eggs or white wine sauces.
- Long season. In this sense they beat morels. Chanterelles fruit from early July (as I write this on July 6, there is a cluster next to my stairway to the shore) to late fall.
- They stay put. The chanterelle is in a stable symbiotic relationship with trees wherever it grows, it is not a decayer. That means the fruiting bodies (mushrooms) will pop up at least once a year in the same spot. You will not diminish the huge underground part of the chanterelle (mycelium) by picking the mushrooms.
- Slow growing. Here’s another way they beat morels. You can leave tiny chanterelles alone and come back in a week and they will be much bigger. Don’t try that with most other ‘shrooms. Bugs don’t like them, but watch out for slugs. We all know here in Maine slugs are at the top, the bottom and everywhere else on the food chain.
The best way to become comfortable with picking wild mushrooms is to take it slow and stick to easily identified species. Get a few good identification books specific to your area (NOT just the internet, do NOT rely on search engine pictures) like George Barron’s Mushrooms of Northeast North America, The National Audubon Society’s Field Guide to Mushrooms or Maine’s own Dave Spahr’s Edible and Medicinal Mushrooms of New England and Eastern Canada. Find an expert in the locality who gathers edible mushrooms if possible or join a mushroom club like our Maine Mycological Association. If you’re pretty sure you have an edible mushroom (other people say 100% sure, but are we ever really?) then begin by eating a very small, cooked portion (never eat raw mushrooms from the wild) and waiting to see if you get an adverse reaction, at least 24 hours. Now comes the fun part: You now have found an edible mushroom and you have taken photos and recorded the date and place. Now all you have to do is check the same spot next year or in the case of chanterelles, every week or so until late fall. With a few more species you’re well on your way to becoming a Maine fungal gourmet.
Sadly, the only way most of us have access to chanterelles is by buying dried ones in little bags at outrageous prices from the grocery store. Here’s the sad part: unlike the king bolete (porcini, steinpilz), chanterelles don’t dry well. Their delicate flavor is lost unlike stronger flavored mushrooms. You might as well not bother. However, some grind the dried ones into powder and use it to flavor sauces, but do that with your own harvest, not with store-bought.
I hope someday to have guests from Italy or Poland whose favorite activity is to hit the woods and look for mushrooms. I remember when the first Russian fishermen came ashore in the late 1980s everyone assumed they’d go to the bars or retail outlets, instead they took to the woods, looking for mushrooms. I could learn from those folks.
Fiddleheads, clams, chanterelles, lobsters, wild blueberries…don’t miss a taste of Maine on your vacation. If only there were a good way to prepare slugs!