Last Christmas my family was all together and we were catching up on what we’d been up to. My theio (uncle) Niko was telling us about the chantarelles he’d been foraging for in the fall, and said that if I was around next autumn to let him know and he’d take me foraging along with him. Well, one of my best friends got married up in Portland this past October, so I was able to tag along while I was home. Chantarelles are an expensive mushroom because they are impossible to cultivate, they only find their way into the marketplace through people foraging for them. Northwestern chantarelles require a very specific growing environment, they only grow at an elevation of 1,000 to 1,500 feet, they only grow in the decomposing needles of adult douglas fir trees (on the east coast and in California they’ll grow under oak trees), and they require a good amount of shade, so the forest canopy needs to be fairly dense. They also need moisture and very moderate temperatures, which matches up perfectly with the autumn weather patterns of Oregon.
If you decide to go foraging for chantarelles, you need to locate an area that meets all those criteria, and you also need a guide. The densely wooded areas where chantarelles grow can quickly become mazes, especially since everything looks exactly the same (moss + trees = lost). Luckily my theio niko knew the area really well so I didn’t have to worry about not finding my way out, but I can guarantee you that that definitely would have happened had I gone out on my own. And apparently even gps systems have a hard time deep in the forest. He has only had to use his once, and in order for it to work he had to leave it still for a couple minutes in order for it to sync with the satellite. If you keep moving around it will have a hard time determining your location. You’ll also need to wear waterproof pants (skiing pants or fishing pants do the trick) and gardening gloves. The brush from the forest will soak normal pants quickly, and you don’t want any weird bugs/poisonous plants irritating your hands while you’re poking around in the woods.
|Healthy chantarelles: white undercarriage, firm with no mushy spots, no dark spots, and no decaying/frayed edges.|
|Chantarelles can be distinguished from other mushrooms because their gills grow fluidly out of the stem material without any separate material structure.|
You also need to know what you’re looking for. As you can see in the above photo, chantarelles are easy to identify because they have a very unique feature, rather than having the gills on the underside a separate entity from the structure of the stem, the gills of the chantarelle grow fluidly directly out of the stem. The mushrooms also tend to be slightly ruffled around the edges, (although not all of them look this way), and are usually gold. There are white varieties in the northwest, but they are rare because they also require hemlock to be thriving nearby in order for the right growing environment to occur (picky much?) They also tend to have a slightly fruity smell to them if you get up close and personal (almost apricot-y). If you are not sure if it is a chantarelle or not, leave it alone. The majority of mushrooms are poisonous and can do serious harm to your body if ingested.
|It may look pretty, but it won’t think twice about killing you.|
When you find a little patch of chantarelles, step lightly, since they’re often partially hidden underneath the pine needles on the forest floor and if you see one, there are likely others nearby that are a bit covered. First look to see if the chantarelle is worth taking. If the whole thing is darkened and mushy and fraying all over the place, it is too far gone and won’t make for a pleasant meal. Ideally, you want a chantarelle with a white stem and undercarriage, a golden top, solid body with no mushy spots, and no dark spots (the dark spots are usually mushy, too). If there is a little dark gold around the edges, or a small part of the mushroom is mushy, you can carve the mushy part off when harvesting. Just use the carved up mushrooms first since they’re likely the oldest.
|The master forager.|
The first step to harvesting chanatrelles is to grab them by the lowest part of the stem you can reach, which usually goes a few inches under the pile of decomposing pine needles on the forest floor. Get a solid grip on the stem and pull up gently, it should come out easily because they don’t have very deep roots. Use a sharp pocket knife to give a clean cut to the bottom of the stem, severing off the roots about 1/2 inch above where they start. Cut off any mushy parts, if there are any. Keep the mushrooms in plastic buckets with handles, the kind you can get at Home Depot for a couple bucks. Paper bags won’t work because they’ll get wet and fall apart, and plastic bags/reusable grocery bags don’t provide enough structural support for the mushrooms and they’ll get smashed while you’re walking through the dense forest being smacked with branches.
Once you’ve found your fill of chantarelles, take them home and clean them by rinsing them with a gentle but firm nozzled spray of water. You can do this outside or in the kitchen sink. The best way to get the dirt out of the crevices underneath the mushroom is to put the nozzle right up under the mushroom and give it a solid 1-second spritz. The pressure of the spray from the hose will force out the little dirt particles. Pat the mushrooms dry with a paper towel and allow them to dry in a sunny spot until they’re completely dry, (takes up to an hour or two). Theio says that the best way to store them is in a covered shoebox in the refrigerator, if you store them like this they’ll keep for a couple weeks. If you want to freeze them, chop them up and sauté them in oil first before freezings to help intensify the flavor and draw out excess water.
I was able to transport a shoebox full of chantarelles back to Los Angeles and knew what I wanted to make with my haul for several weeks prior: a tasty risotto. I’d make Greek rice pudding and savory Korean rice porridges before, but I’d never tried my hand at making risotto. As it turns out, the cooking process is very similar to both of those things. It basically involves boiling rice in too much liquid so that it gets nice and soft and mushy. But the key is to keep stirring the post regularly so that none of the rice mixture burns onto the bottom of the pan.
Chantarelle Mushroom Risotto
First caramelize the shallots. Melt the butter in a medium-sized frying pan over medium heat. Add the shallots and stir to coat in the butter. Reduce the heat to low. Continue cooking them until they turn golden brown, (about 40 minutes), stirring every 10 minutes and more frequently towards the end of cooking to keep them from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Remove from heat and set aside.
In a large pot, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and sautee for 5 minutes, then add the mushrooms and cook for 5 minutes more. Add the rice and stir constantly for 2 minutes, then add the wine and 2 cups of the stock. Continue cooking and stirring until most of the stock is absorbed, then add another cup of stock and keep stirring until it is mostly absorbed. Repeat this process until you have used all the stock. Once the risotto is thick and creamy, add the caramelized shallots, cream, cheeses, herbs, and spices and stir until incorporated and all the cheese has melted. Remove from heat and taste, add more salt if necessary. Serve immediately.