Plenty has been written about chanterelles, since foragers tend to like finding knowledge almost as much as they like finding fungi. But the one thing you'll never learn from any printed or digital manual is exactly where to gather the handsome mushrooms. Foragers are intensely secretive about their favorite spots.
And when it comes to chanterelles, discretion makes sense. Chanterelles, which can't be cultivated, retail for about $25 a pound, which translates to $4 a pound for the pickers. Many foragers, who count on the seasonal income, get prickly when their hunting grounds are stripped.
The vast majority of chanterelle collectors are very friendly. But if you do manage to get into a fight in the woods, it's generally best to back away. Here's what else you need to know about the wild mushroom beloved by epicures:
1. Unlike most mushrooms, chanterelles are uniformly colored: They're orange-gold from their fleshy, depressed caps down to their ridged stipes (or stems.) Other distinguishing characteristics include an apricot aroma and propensity to grow in clusters.
2. Chanterelles fruit from September to February on the West Coast, but the growth cycle's nearly reversed on the East Coast. The South Carolina harvest coincides with the summer, although this year's crop was delayed by dry weather.
3. If shopping for chanterelles in a store instead of the great outdoors, look for fragrant, firm mushrooms, free of slime and dark spots. Store mushrooms in a brown paper bag.
4. East Coast chanterelles are about the size of a fist, making them significantly larger than the chanterelles that grow in Asia and Europe. But West Coast chanterelles are the planet's reigning heavyweight champs: According to the Mycological Society of San Francisco, "chanterelles weighing as much as 2 pounds are not uncommon." East Coasters counter that the smaller chanterelles are better-tasting.
5. Eighteenth-century French chefs helped establish chanterelles' gourmet reputation. The meaty mushroom's rich flavors, which veer from fruity to spicy to woodsy, are fat-soluble, which is why chanterelles are often cooked in butter or cream. Even mushroom aficionados avoid eating chanterelles raw. "They are peppery and upsetting," the Mycological Society of San Francisco maintains.
6. Because chanterelles have so many folds, they're difficult to thoroughly clean, especially since they're damaged by soaking in water. Experienced foragers recommend using a toothbrush under a slowly-running faucet to remove the dirt. Fortunately, chanterelles are largely insect-resistant, so cooks don't have to worry about the slugs and maggots that are a fact of the wild food world.
7. A few chanterelle lookalikes are edible: Dedicated foragers chafe at the perfectly safe black chanterelle being called the "trumpet of death." But the false chanterelle, which has thicker gills, a deeper color and a downier texture than the desirable mushroom, doesn't belong in your basket. While false chanterelles aren't classified as poisonous, they can cause serve gastrointestinal distress, and have been linked to hallucinations.