In mid-October I received a text message from my daughter that said, “They’re here.” Diana didn’t have to elaborate. I knew what she meant. Five minutes later my cell phone populated with pictures of a mother lode of golden chanterelles. I felt like I do when friends send me photos of trophy-size salmon: jealous and eager to get some of the same for myself.
Most of my life has been spent in rain shadow country within a clear day’s view of the Blue Mountains. I harbor no desire to live west of the Cascades after having experienced the dark and dank of winter rain during my college years in the Willamette Valley. What continues to attracts me to the “wet side,” however, is the chance to hunt mushrooms during a fall season that extends like a promise into early December.
Each quest on the Coast Range begins with a careful study of the forested landscape: slope, aspect, soil type, overstory vegetation. Unlike summer hunts in eastern Washington, however, plant life is lush and green. At first glance, finding mushrooms appears impossible against a forest floor as busy as a Mayan jungle.
Dressed in seldom-used waterproof attire, my day starts with snow-covered peaks of the north Cascades in the rearview window. Sunlight filters thru a tall canopy of western red cedar having what the author David James Duncan called, “a sweet smell like solitude itself.” Shaggy moss and lichen hang down like moth-eaten Halloween decorations from standing dead trees. A shag carpet of sphagnum moss softens footsteps taken to a low gradient slope above a tiny coastal river. Gentle breezes cajole the lower branches of big leaf maple, shedding an overnight load of rain on my head.
It’s mostly golden chanterelles I seek. This highly prized group of fall emergent mushrooms occur world-wide. In the Pacific Northwest they can be found in association with Douglas fir in the Cascade Mountains and the Coast Range, but not in the Blue Mountains. Unlike the elusive black morel, they emerge in the same location year after year. Hence, avid shroomers park a mile away from a favorite hunting ground, wear camo clothing, and hide their harvest to assure no one will see them.
It’s peaceful in this forest cathedral. I bend down and sift through sword fern and waxy salal to examine a golden glow. Sometimes finding a mushroom is a matter of simply standing still and looking down.
Chanterelles have a cream-colored flesh, mild to spicy taste, and often impart a fruity apricot aroma. Distinguishing characteristics include a golden color and trumpet-like cap with “decurrent folds” and a wrinkled underside. Chanterelles often hide along the margins of open mossy areas, their fluted edges barely visible. They lend themselves well to a rich-flavored Thanksgiving holiday soup. Or pair them with risotto, pasta, and egg dishes.
Next up to find space in my bag is a large lobster, so called because of its brilliant orange color. Lobsters are actually a fungus that parasitizes a Rusulla brevipes mushroom. The highly visible lobster is widely sought out for its firm flesh, while most Rusullas are said to be “better kicked than picked.” However, my daughter doesn’t scoff at the lesser acquired fungi; instead regals in its “peppery” addition to a mixed wild mushroom Stroganoff as an ideal Sunday fall dinner.
My trundling eventually leads to several large mushrooms growing in an arc. These pig’s ears look much like their name: tan in color, edges turned up and wavy, purple underside, solid stalk. Besides adding a meaty texture to a favorite dish, pigs ears are said to dye wool a lovely lavender when used in conjunction with iron mordent.
Fall corals, smaller in size and more colorful than species commonly found in the Blues, also make their way into my bag. Knowing the gastronomical effects of this diverse group can range from a mild laxative to poisonous, I first cook and eat a small amount before serving. As should be the case when trying all “new to you” wild mushrooms.
Many aficionados favor the tiny hedgehog, a class of teeth fungi having tiny spines that line the underside of their cap. Often associated with hedgehogs is the yellow foot or winter chanterelle. A small cap, perhaps 1.5 inches in diameter, concave umbel, and a slender golden stalk describes this dainty and delicious fungi. Both are easy to dry and add to an omelette.
Slinging a two-gallon canvas bag heavy with harvest over my shoulder, I take a diversionary route back to the road. My path takes me past more hidden pitfalls, through prickly Oregon grape, and along a lineup of rotten stumps that provide nutrients for red huckleberry – or perhaps the next king of the forest – to grow. On this solo hunt I wonder, would anyone find me if I tripped and fell in this leafy maze?
The afternoon will be spent sorting, cleaning, and bagging up six different species of edible forest fungi. Hopefully, the sun will emerge from behind somber clouds to provide an easterly view of Hood Canal and help dry out my bountiful harvest. The 300-mile commute from the Tri-Cities, one that involved combative driving with semi-trucks across Snoqualmie Pass and creeping along western Washington freeways, suddenly feels worth the effort.