Chanterelles and their similarly fragrant relative, the cinnabar-red chanterelle

Like maitake, the chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius) is an extraordinarily satisfying mushroom to find. You can often spot a chanterelle patch from a distance, their brilliant egg yolk color standing out against the browns and greens of the forest. Though they can be solitary, chanterelles tend to be gregarious. Every time I discover a new patch locally, I am doubly excited. Not only do I have a meal (or several meals) – I have a producing location that I can visit again year after year, between late June and late September.

Sounds easy, right? Last summer I think I developed a bit of chanterelle hubris, harvesting enough to feed family and friends many decadent meals, from chanterelle omelettes to pan-seared sole topped with chanterelles. I went into this chanterelle season with a strange mixture of desperation and confidence. I felt desperate because I had found only three yellow morels in May, which seemed to have been in the path of a deer stampede. Then, after I had spent upwards of 20 hours futilely and single-mindedly foraging, Jenna took our dog Judah on a hike in late May and found one large, unblemished, gorgeous yellow morel. Jenna was kind enough to share the mushroom with one of our friends and me, neatly dividing it into thirds that we promptly devoured.

Our beautiful yellow morel, before cooking and dividing into thirds

So, after a lackluster morel season that culminated with one of the most tantalizingly delicious bites of my life, followed by two months of mushroomless waiting, it’s not surprising I felt eager as chanterelle season approached this June. Yet I remained confident – if I had found grocery bags full of chanterelles during my first summer in Ithaca, wouldn’t it be easy to find even more this summer now that I knew the locations of several patches?

The season started off strong; on June 23 I checked my most reliable chanterelle spot on a whim and found at least 20 small buttons, as well as a few mature mushrooms. That same week, I decided to return to a spot where I had seen just a few chanterelles the previous summer. The three chanterelles of 2009 had turned into at least 300! I left the vast majority, but still took home plenty for eating and sharing.

Ari has some luck at a favorite chanterelle and black trumpet spot

But then, as I discuss in the post “Drought and Deliverance,” the rains decided to check out for a while, taking most of the chanterelles with them. I have still found a trickle of chanterelles and their close, later season relative the smooth chanterelle (Cantharellus lateritius) over the past month, but the majority of my chanterelle meals this summer were in late June and the first half of July. Fortunately, it is not too late. The soils are no longer quite so parched, and a couple more good rains should bring out new flushes of chanterelles, or at least their smooth brethren.

The smooth chanterelle shares the golden chanterelle’s yellow color, vase-like shape, and subtle apricot scent and flavor, but instead of attached gills it merely has wrinkles or small folds in the cap’s underside. It is even safer to identify than Cantharellus cibarius, as its smooth belly more readily distinguishes it from the chanterelle’s only worrisome, poisonous (though non-fatal) look-a-like – the free-gilled jack-o-lantern.

As I once heard a veteran mushroom hunter say, “Jack-O-Lanterns won’t kill you, but they’ll sure make you wish you were dead!” with the violent vomiting and stomach cramps they can induce. He told me a story about some friends of his who left him a message saying, “Man, we found the biggest chanterelles ever!” The minute he heard it, he worried that they might have accidentally consumed the jack-o-lantern. Unfortunately, by the time he listened to the message, his friends were already in the emergency room with severe food poisoning. I imagine the only fun thing about jack-o-lantern poisoning is the relief when you realize you are not really going to die, despite the fact that your body seems to be giving you every indication that you are going to.

However, though jack-o-lanterns do tend to be bigger and fleshier than chanterelles, that is not the key identifying characteristic (in fact, size should almost never be the primary feature used to distinguish between two mushrooms). The gills of chanterelles are forked like a tree branch and attached, meaning they are wrinkles or folds in the cap’s underside rather than free, distinct entities like the gills of a portabella mushroom. Conversely, jack-o-lanterns have free gills that are straight and not forked. Be aware that both species have decurrent gills, meaning they run part-way down the mushroom’s stem.

Another important distinction is the way each mushroom grows. While jack-o-lanterns always grow on wood (careful, though – the log might be buried!), chanterelles grow out of the soil in a mycorrhizal association with a tree’s roots. Several tree species can support chanterelles including hemlock and fir, but in Ithaca I primarily find them near oaks. Chanterelles are always found near trees, while I have seen jack-o-lanterns growing in the middle of large fields on the Cornell campus on buried wood.

Chanterelles are often scattered throughout the landscape across broad areas, but there are rarely more than two or three in a single cluster. When I find a chanterelle patch, I can usually almost make out the shape of their mycelial mat; they seem to be arranged loosely in a curving band. In bigger patches, there can be several bands that wind and weave their way throughout the forest. Jack-o-lanterns tend to grow in bigger, tighter clumps, though you might find several of the clumps in the same area.

The other mushroom that beginners can confuse with the chanterelle is the false chanterelle, Hygrophoropsis aurantiaca. This is not a very dangerous look-alike, but it is insipid and some report stomach upsets. Do not eat it, unless you want to be sorely disappointed. Its gills are forked and decurrent like those of the chanterelle, but are free with sharp edges instead of attached. It has a more muted and orange color than the chanterelle, and instead of being a uniform color throughout, its cap gets darker towards the center and is finely tomentose (hairy).

Neither the jack-o-lantern nor the false chanterelle shares the chanterelle’s distinctive scent, which reminds many people of apricots. The smell is mild, though discernible, if you hold just one mushroom to your nose. However, it is not until you stick your nose inside a large bag of chanterelles that you realize just how euphoric and mouthwatering the scent truly is. For me, it does have an apricot quality, but there also are floral notes that remind me of jasmine or even lilac.

Chanterelles with another relative, the black trumpet

Ironically, one thing chanterelles do not smell or taste much like at all is a mushroom. This makes them a good entry into the world of gourmet mushrooms for somebody who has never liked eating fungi. Though their subtle flavor is unparalleled when paired with seafood, poultry, or eggs, it is easily overpowered. Many mushroom lovers, myself included, consider it anathema to include chanterelles in the same dish as the richer, more woodsy Agaricus and Boletus species. Do this flower of a fungus justice and sauté it in butter with minced garlic and salt and pepper to taste!