Updated: Oct 23, 2020
Autumn holds a special place in my heart because the rains have begun to fall in the Willamette Valley, bringing a plethora of fungi. Golden chanterelles happen to be my variety of choice, closely followed by the bright red glow of the lobster. My favorite time to hunt is first thing in the morning. The fog is still thick on Mary’s Peak and I admire the early sun filtering through the Douglas firs.
I have been coming to the same spot for 8 years now and I can tell what time of day it is and in which direction I am hiking simply by the position of the sun through the trees. Each tree has a personality of its own. Mary’s Peak feels like my own personal backyard because I know it so well, and what a glorious backyard it is. I inhale. Simply breathe in the air before heading out a hunt. There is something magical about the air that surrounds you in a forest. It has a way to welcome you into its world. Life is all around.
Take time to experience it. It is a time to slow down, hiking and hunting gives you time to connect with nature and to disconnect from society and technology. Sometimes our society is too toxic for me and I need to just let it go. Seeing too many hypocrites in the religious world has turned me off of organized religion, but when I am mushroom hunting I am in church. There is a peace that comes over me that does not happen anywhere else. I feel blessed being able to enjoy a beautiful hike while also gathering nourishing mushrooms for meals.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, chanterelles have a mycorrhizal relationship with Douglas firs; the mushrooms feed on sugars from the tree and the tree, in turn, provides nutrients for the mushrooms (on the east coast and in California, the mushrooms tend to grow under oaks).
Regardless of the type of host, chanterelles thrive in live forests. I say live forests because other mushrooms, such as morels, thrive in a forest that has been devastated by a forest fire. The key to any good hunt is to know what to look for and where to find it. I stick to chanterelles and lobsters because a) they are very easy to identify and b) I love the flavor and texture they have when cooked. I can identify other mushrooms and could forage them if desired, but I think that some mushrooms are just better left in the wild. Some mushrooms look beautiful when you cut, but then lose a lot of their appeal once you arrive home to clean.
What to look for:
In mid-October autumn is in full bloom, the chanterelles camouflage well with a fresh canopy of yellow and orange leaves. It is a little easier to find them once the leaves begin to brown later in the season, but early hunting lets you find a spot that hopefully no one else knows about. I tend to look for just a tip of a mushroom, once you find that you can dig around the pine needles and other leaves to expose a little cluster.
Mushrooms do not grow alone. Where there is one there will be another, unless, that is, someone else has come before you and cut it away.
Sometimes it is difficult to find your first mushroom, but once you get an eye for them, you will see them everywhere. I couldn’t help but giggle when Glinda the good witch’s song to the munchkins (from Wizard of Oz for those of you who may not get the reference) came into my head, “Come out, come out, wherever you are, come meet the young lady who fell from a star.”
Once I have gathered as many mushrooms as I can I leave: wet, tired from crawling under and over fallen trees, and at peace. When I get home I clean up the mushrooms first thing. There are always plenty of little critters (of the insect variety, not wild cat variety) that have made their way into my bag and I re-home them in my garden.
Here's a picture of a lobster mushroom in case you were wondering what they look like.
Cleaning mushrooms is not as tedious as some people lead you to believe. The experts will tell you to lightly brush away the debris and dirt, they even have special brushes simply for cleaning their mushrooms. I am not an expert, I do love mushrooms however, so the faster I can eat them the better. My way of cleaning might sound barbaric to the mushroom afficionado. "Never let it get wet!" they lecture, as if the mushrooms are related to Gremlins. But if you think about it dropping a gremlin into water made it multiply, so maybe my way is the best way. If you are out in the forest you come to realize how wet these mushrooms get and they thrive in this environment.
Get a large pot or bowl of water, or scrub your sink and fill it with water and then throw the mushrooms into the water. I don't let the mushrooms soak in the water, because whatever liquid they absorb you will have to let it evaporate, but dunking the mushrooms and just removing the dirt with your fingers gets them clean quickly. Any excess dirt can be rinsed off under running water.
And just like that, clean mushrooms.
After I have clean mushrooms I always lay them out on towels. The mushrooms have a lot of moisture in them and if you were to put them in your fridge wet they would go bad quickly. Especially if it has been raining a lot you want to let the mushrooms sit overnight. Sometimes if the humidity is high I will change out the damp towels for clean dry ones and let them sit for another day to dry out a little more. Break the larger mushrooms up into smaller pieces, this will let them dry more evenly and quickly. On this particular hunt I found chicken of the woods, lobsters, and chanterelles.
This will preserve the mushrooms long enough to last you until your next hunt. I love mushroom season and try to get out every week. Not only does drying out the mushrooms help them last a little longer, they also will cook faster if they don't have a ton of moisture to release when they are in the pan. While we're on that note, don't over-crowd your pan, give the mushrooms plenty of space and just let them cook down. Don't stir them and pile more on top of them, give them space and just let them cook. Make sure to social distance them. ;) How could I resist? Pandemics are fun huh? Moving on...
Once they have been sitting overnight and seem dry to the touch but are not withered, place in a brown paper bag for 1-2 weeks. Anyway enough with reading this blog, go out and hunt for some mushrooms!
My preferred way to consume them is just cooked in a little oil, salt, a little garlic, and thyme. I could just eat them by the bowlful.
Here is a recipe for the mushrooms though if you want a more complete meal: