The woods in upstate New York are warm. Beneath the oaks and beeches the shade is green and the air is sluggishly concentrated, reduced to a syrup. A halo of solicitous bugs escorts us as we walk. Perspiration glues my backpack to my skin.
My husband and I are here to hunt chanterelles, summer’s fabled edible mushroom. It has been a year since we found a fruiting of the russet-colored fungi in this forest. Their color earns them the charming name of ‘little foxes’ in Russia, and that is how I like to think of them.
The season has been disconcertingly dry, but two days before, back in Brooklyn, I tracked weather radar and watched amorphous red and orange masses lurch over these woods. Reason for optimism.
In the leaf litter we notice ghost pipes, pale markers of the season. Despite their elfin pallor they are plants, not mushrooms, dependent on an intricate mycorrhizal web of trees and fungi. They bloom in response to rain. Austere pipsissewa flowers grace the deep shade. Masses of bear cone, another parasitic plant lacking chlorophyll and looking weirdly fungal, crowd a slope. Nestled beside one devastated clump is fresh bear scat. A fly buzzes.
Leaving the path, Vincent, my husband, crunches across leaf litter and dry twigs. He skirts colonies of fern and follows his French nose. He grew up hunting chanterelles, “girolles” in Provence. He is out of sight (and I am thinking hard about bears) when I hear him whistle. I bushwhack toward him, avoiding invasive barberry shrubs (ticks like to shelter on them). He is smiling.
At his feet chanterelles push out of the duff, bright against brown. Their sunny undersides are velvety. Other chanterelle species have false gills, with distinct edges. These are smooth chanterelles, vividly aromatic, and firm-textured (their flavor is mild). Our eyes recalibrate and we spot more little foxes under ferns. We stay for an hour, searching slowly and squatting again and again to fill all our blue farmers market boxes. We buzz with mushrooming dopamine.
We picnic beside a familiar stream. Last year’s mossy slope is dry and bereft of the intensely flavored black trumpet mushrooms we found that summer. The stream is low, but the crayfish in the clear pools look happy. Heading back on a different trail crowded by ferns, we realize suddenly that orderly rows of chanterelles are lining the path like lights on a runway. The mushrooms are tracing the invisible roots of their ectomycorrhizal partner, probably an oak. Soon our backup paper bags are full.
We drive home between the leafy walls of the Palisades Parkway, the scent of cooked apricots filling the car, rising from the motherlode of chanterelles on the back seat. It is their famous aroma. The mushroom hunters’ reward.
Identification: For inexperienced mushroomers, beware the poisonous jack o’lantern and other orange look-alikes. Learn the differences.
At Home: Chanterelles keep very well. Store them in paper, never plastic (they will sweat and discolor), in the fridge. Wash just before using them.
Follow this link for Chanterelle-Stuffed Tomatoes.
These delicious pickles bring out my inner Russian. Serve with viscous vodka. Keep them in the fridge, but if you want shelf life, can them. I use homemade vinegar (spruce and apple), but white wine vinegar works well, with some added sugar.
1.5 pounds chanterelles, trimmed
3 cups white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon salt
6 stalks sweet clover (Melilotis alba or M. officinalis—optional)
3 bay leaves
3 sprigs thyme
Fill a bowl with water and salt it generously (this evicts hiding bugs). Add the chanterelles, swirl them around vigorously, and leave for 20 minutes. Drain. If the water was very dirty, repeat. Dry them.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the mushrooms, cover, and bring to a boil again. Immediately drain them. (This preserves their texture.)
Combine the vinegar, sugar, salt and herbs in a pot. Bring to a simmer. Add the drained mushrooms. Bring to a gentle simmer again and cook for 5 minutes. Turn off the heat. Allow the liquid to cool until tepid. Transfer the mushrooms and pickling liquid to sterilized glass jars. Transfer to the fridge, or can.
Photographs by Marie Viljoen