The chanterelle. Despite its romantic twirl off the tongue, you'd think it was practically domesticated—an off-the-shelf French floozy Halloween costume. Is there an A-list wild mushroom that gets less respect, after all, than the chanty? Like an over-exposed model, it has the faint whiff of "been there done that." Well, I for one wouldn't kick a golden chanterelle out of bed for eating Cheez-Its!
Their fruity nose of apricots is unique in the fungal kingdom, and that fruitiness carries over into taste. Though earthy like other wild mushrooms, the chanterelle's flavor is reminiscent of orchards and vineyards and other more civilized habitats. In my neck of the woods they're without a doubt the most common of the wild mushrooms, gracing even the shelves of the local Safeway.
But don't be fooled. Though common, chanterelles are not always an easy find, and their singular flavor and aroma can transform many a dish from pedestrian to sublime, in particular any dish with bacon in it. Something about the union of fruity chanterelle with the essence of pig is a marriage made in culinary heaven.
How do you find chanterelles, you ask? I can't speak for other parts of the country, but in the Pacific Northwest young stands of Douglas fir are your best bet. This means a trip to logging country, where you'll pass miles of unsightly clearcuts before finding that perfect stand of 10 to 40-year-old tree farm Doug-firs where chanties thrive. This is not my favorite sort of mushroom hunting. The forest is dense, damp, and dark—and usually a boring monoculture. But if you can manage to find a patch of woods that hasn't been visited by a commercial forager you'll find the green moss carpeted with golden fungal goblets. These are the classic Pacific golden chanterelles, Cantharellus formosus. There are other varieties.
A strikingly hued species associated with spruce—Sitka on the coast and Engelmann in the inland West—goes by the name Cantharellus cibarius var. roseocanus. I find these chanterelles, known to commercial pickers as "peach chants" or "fluorescent chants," in the high huckleberry meadows of the Cascades, where they hug the ground in a most unchanterelle-like demureness, their dullish yellow caps with a surprisingly flat topography peeking out of the duff. But slice one off at the ankles and turn it over and you'll see the most blazing hue of neon orange underneath the cap.
And let's not forget the humble white chanterelle (Cantharellus subalbidus), which is often less expensive at the market than its golden cousin yet is my favorite for its meatiness and strong flavor. White chanties hide beneath the duff, often requiring an eagle eye and careful excavation. The result is a chanterelle that is dirtier than its golden counterparts but worth the effort to root out and clean up.
Fig & Chanterelle Crostini
For this post I tried to stay away from heavy cream, an effort of Dr. Strangelove proportions. The photo at top is my favorite new canape, a simple dollop of chopped chanterelles sauteed with shallots and fresh sage in butter topped with a thin slice of fig and a sprinkle of parsley. Admittedly, I wasn't too keen on the fig when a few of us first concocted this simple crostini; I thought the addition of fresh fig would take the fruitiness factor too far, but in fact it merely drives home the fact that chanterelles are a woodsy treat.
The photo at bottom shows a chanterelle succotash of sorts: Balsamic Glazed Pork Loin over Chanterelles, Corn & Apple. I'd say this is still a work in progress. I sauteed the chanties in bacon fat (with the diced bacon left in) along with chopped shallots, then added corn scraped off the cob, a diced Granny Smith apple, and a handful of baby arugula. The sweet and tart flavors still need some balancing, so I won't bother with the full recipe.
The other dinner shot is a recipe taken from Suzanne Goin's Sunday Suppers at Lucques, Scallops with Chanterelles, Sherry, and Parsley Breadcrumbs. This was a meal that encouraged third helpings and I can't recommend Goin's book enough.
Chanties offer endless possibilities for brightening a meal with fall color and the tastes and smells of the harvest season. To borrow from Bull Durham, when you speak of the chanterelle, speak well.