This week’s plant for #WildEdibleWednesday… isn’t a plant. Behold our first-ever featured fungus – Cantharellus cibarius, the beautiful and coveted Golden Chanterelle mushroom. Since we started doing #WildEdibleWednesday over a year ago, we’ve featured 53 different edible and medicinal plants, ranging from towering trees to tiny wildflowers. But we’ve yet to really touch on wild mushrooms, even though there are a myriad of edible species in Georgia, many of which (like the Chanterelle) are world-class culinary delicacies. The main reason is that we don’t teach what we don’t know – we’re not going to BS you by regurgitating knowledge off the internet that we don’t at least have a working level of firsthand knowledge of ourselves. Because in the wilderness skills field, where there’s a real possibility that people will stake their lives on what we teach, that’s just not something we’re willing to do. Our knowledge of wild mushrooms isn’t what our knowledge of plants is – yet. (Although that’s something we’re working to change) But Chanterelles are one we’ve been eating for years, and they’re a safe bet.
Chanterelles are widely considered to be one of the most desirable edible mushrooms in the world, and on the rare occasions when you can find fresh ones for sale, they command premium prices. Chefs all around the world consider them one of their favorite ingredients, and with good reason. The good news is, if you’re worth your salt as a woodsman, you can forage your own instead of paying premium prices at high-end grocery stores. The goal of this post is to help you safely identify the golden chanterelle so that you, too, can partake in this paragon of culinary excellence. We’ll also cover the often-overlooked but important point that chanterelles have some interesting and powerful medicinal qualities as well.
The golden chanterelle is a mycorrhizal fungus with an above-ground fruiting body – a mushroom. It is native to broad swaths of the globe, and can be found in temperate areas in Europe, Asia, North Africa, and North America. No matter what continent it’s growing on, it’s found in similar habitat. Chanterelles like moist (but not wet), rich soil underneath mature trees – usually broadleaf hardwoods, but sometimes conifers as well. They won’t be found in wet creek bottoms or on dry ridgelines, rather, you’ll find them midway in between. If this sounds like what’s known in the Southern Appalachians as “cove forest,” you’re absolutely right. In Georgia, look for open, mature hardwood forests consisting of tulip poplars, beeches, oaks, and hickories. They will not grow in open areas, and you also won’t find them growing directly on rotting wood – soil only. Chanterelles cannot be cultivated, at least not to my knowledge. This is part of what makes them so valuable – every chanterelle mushroom you see for sale in a grocery store was wild-foraged somewhere. The reason for this is that (as mentioned before), this is a mycorrhizal fungus, meaning it has a symbiotic relationship with the roots of the mature trees it grows under. Most mycorrhizal fungi are microscopic and subterranean, but chanterelles are a notable exception. The way a mycorrhizal relationship works is that the fungus attaches microscopic tendrils (the mycorrhizae) to the tree’s roots, and funnels nutrients and water from the soil to the tree. Its network of tendrils can be huge – even bigger than the tree’s own roots in rare cases. In return, the tree feeds the fungus sugars it produces during photosynthesis. In effect, the mushroom basically works as a subcontractor to provide nutrients for the tree, and gets paid in sugar. (I work in construction, bear with me here!) These relationships are vitally important to the health of the forest. Once trees get to a certain size, they actually depend on the fungus to survive, as their own root network isn’t big enough to provide for their needs. It’s absolutely mind-blowing to think that a tulip poplar two hundred feet tall and six feet across at the base which weighs several tons depends on a tiny mushroom for its survival.
Anyway, back to how to positively ID chanterelles… One of the reasons we chose to feature this mushroom is its lack of deadly mimics. There is a False Chanterelle mushroom, but it is comparatively rare and isn’t toxic, it just tastes bad. Golden chanterelles are most easily identified by their namesake color. They stand out brilliantly against the dark leaves of the forest floor and range from a rich golden yellow to a deep orange. They’re small, too. These mushrooms are usually no more than 2-3” across and about as tall. They grow in colonies, meaning you’ll never find one on its own. Chanterelles have some other distinctive characteristics as well. For one, their stipe (stem) is bare and clean. Their cap is infundibuliform, meaning trumpet-shaped. Their cap doesn’t always grow evenly, often giving them a ruffled look. Sometimes they look like an Edison phonograph when viewed from the side. And importantly, their hymenium (the underside of the cap) is covered in wrinkly ridges, not gills. This is the easiest way to distinguish them from the false chanterelle, and most other mushrooms, for that matter. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, gills look exactly like what they sound like. Most mushrooms have them, including the white button and Portobello mushrooms most of us usually eat. Chanterelles don’t. Their ridges originate at the top of the stem and branch out at the edge of the cap. And finally, there’s the unique scent. It’s hard to describe. It’s often characterized as an apricot smell, and that’s close, but not quite it. It’s definitely fruity and a little spicy as well, but very mild and totally unique. Suffice to say, nothing else smells quite like it.
Before we get into the edible glory of these mushrooms, I’d like to point out the fact that they’re also very powerful medicinally. Most of the health benefits of this mushroom come, fortunately, from eating it. Chanterelles are extremely high in iron, vitamin D, B-complex vitamins, niacin, and manganese. They are useful for managing Type 2 Diabetes – several published studies have shown marked improvements in insulin sensitivity from eating these mushrooms. Chanterelles also help improve skin health and tone through their high levels of B-complex vitamins. They are also known for helping to prevent migraines, and even manage women’s PMS symptoms. It’s also a cancer fighter. The mushroom’s compounds have good free radical scavenging activity, and are a strong antioxidant. Interestingly, they’re useful for external medicine as well. According to a study published by the National Institute for Health last year, lab rats with lacerations healed significantly faster, had less scarring, and were less prone to infection when treated with a 2% c. cibarius extract ointment vs. treated with an off-the-shelf antibiotic ointment. So if you’re flush with chanterelles, you can dry them and make a powerful healing salve.
Like we’ve been talking about this whole post, chanterelles are some of the finest eating around. Chanterelles are fine raw, but they only reach their full potential when cooked. The application of heat breaks down cell walls and allows aromatic phytochemicals to escape, which allows us to smell and taste them. When it comes to cooking these mushrooms, simpler is better. Chanterelles have a delicate, complex flavor that needs to shine on its own, rather than being drowned out by strong, intense flavors. Most of the flavorful compounds in chanterelles are fat-soluble, so they lend themselves well to cooking in butter, oil, or cream. They also have a smaller concentration of alcohol-soluble compounds, so cooking them in a sauce made with wine or whiskey isn’t a bad idea either. My personal favorite way to cook them is a simple sauté in butter with a little bit of garlic. They really don’t need anything else. However, one recipe I’ve been wanting to try is to do the aforementioned garlic butter sauté, but then add some vermouth and heavy cream, reduce it down into a sauce, and serve over pasta, maybe with some grilled chicken. Mmm.
One of the best meals I ever had during my time on the Appalachian Trail was actually one I cooked myself, and was also my first-ever exposure to chanterelles. I was hiking through Shenandoah National Park in northern Virginia and happened upon a kindly old man and his wife picking mushrooms. We struck up a conversation, during which he told me an unfortunate story that involved a mycology professor at the University of Virginia and a deadly Amanita. That one’s since become part of SARCRAFT lore, but we’ll save it for another time. I asked what he was harvesting and he replied, “Chanterelles. They’re the best mushrooms in the world. You want some?” I said of course I did, and held out my hand for a sample. “No, no. Do you have a bag? We’ve got plenty.” He motioned to the sprawling patch of bright orange mushrooms carpeting a huge swath of the forest floor. I pulled a gallon Ziploc out of my pack and he filled it to the brim. We talked for a while longer before I had to hike on… I thanked him profusely, knowing I’d probably never see him again. Trail magic, y’all. As it happened, I was staying at a hostel in the nearby town of Front Royal that night, and when the owner picked me up at the trailhead, I told her my mushroom story. “Oh, those are worth their weight in gold. You’re in for a treat.” I asked her to drop me off at Walmart while she ran some errands, and I went to the grocery section and let my imagination run wild. Most of my meals on the trail were either dehydrated or came from a gas station, so being able to cook myself a real meal, especially with gourmet ingredients, was a real pleasure. That night, I feasted on pan-seared lemon dill salmon, fresh broccoli, rice pilaf, and the centerpiece, those all-important chanterelles, sautéed in butter with a little bit of fresh garlic. From that moment, I was sold. Chanterelles really are all they’re cracked up to be, and then some. That day was one of my favorite memories from the Trail, and I hope that you all get to have a similar experience.
Harvest season is right now – chanterelles are usually available from June through October, depending on where you live. Our disclaimer is that if you’re still not comfortable identifying them, don’t. It’s better to walk away than eat a mushroom you aren’t 100% sure of. Always try small amounts until you know how you’ll respond. We aren’t familiar with anyone having a deadly allergy to chanterelles, but anything is possible. And please harvest responsibly. When cutting mushrooms, leave at least one out of every ten (10%) mushrooms you see, so that there are some survivors to re-populate the area. In macro terms, they’re necessary for the health of the forest and you don’t want to destroy the colony. In practical terms, it’s in your own best interest, so that you can keep coming back to harvest year after year.
So, that’s our first fungus. We’ll feature more mushrooms over time as our own skill set grows, but for now, chanterelles are a great place to start. What do you think? Do you have firsthand experience with these mushrooms? Any recipes you’d like to share? Tell us in the comments!