Friday, January 1, 2016

O, Chanterelle

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             In the beginning I was just like you, didn't know chanterelles from tam-o'-shanters. But once upon a time, long before you could buy fancy mushrooms in the store, my twin brother, Thor, proposed we drive up to Mt. Tamalpais to collect a special kind of mushroom called chanterelles by most people, "pfifferlings" by Bavarians, and Cantharellus by the early 19th Century Swedish child prodigy of fungi, Elias Magnus Fries, author of the Systema Mycologicum.

            Thor told me that chanterelles were baseball-sized orange fungi that hid beneath the leaf litter around the base of oak trees and were good to eat, so we should go get some. I wasn't doing anything special at the time, so I said okay. We headed out to Frank’s Valley along Redwood Creek, parked at what Thor said was a likely looking spot, and in a very short time he had collected enough of the prized fungi to make a meal. We drove them back to my place, sliced them thin, and cooked them for dinner.

            Now I'm no fancy epicurean with a lot of words to describe nuances of flavor, nor am I a scientist who can explain the chemistry of organic compounds on the biological surface of my tongue, and the electrical impulses firing excitement into webs of neurons in some tiny part of my brain. And I’m not even all that fond of mushrooms in general, but I’ll tell you what. Those chanterelles were a revelation.

            You might think I should try to describe the flavor to you, but the fact is, if you ask a dozen people to describe what chanterelles taste like, you'll get a dozen different answers. Some will probably even say “yuck.” If you really want to know what a thing is like, you need to experience it for yourself.

            So Thor gave me my first taste, but shortly thereafter he married his sweetheart and lit out for Coyote Springs, Wyoming. I searched for chanterelles on my own over the next few months and found not a single one. The wet season ended, and the dry season came and I sort of forgot about chanterelles. But I'll tell you what you already know. If you ever experience anything as sweet as a chanterelle, you're going to do everything you can to have that experience again.

            It seemed an easy enough thing to do, to learn how to find chanterelles. At first I did a little research, a little reading, and found out there was such a thing as false chanterelles (Hygrophoropsis aurantiaca), whose bland flavor will leave you wondering what the fuss was all about -- and that's just for starters. If you were to eat a chanterelle-looking ‘shroom called Jack-O-Lantern (Omphalotus olivascens), you could find yourself hooked up to a stomach pump at the local hospital and meeting some fella called a “mycologist” who would have been called in for the unenviable job of trying to identify what you ate.

            Nope, as alluring as chanterelles are, a few hours of intimacy with a stomach pump could turn just about anyone off the quest for finding them. Funny thing is, lots of folks who've gotten sick from false chanterelles curse all chanterelles. Even funnier is that some folks have actually taken a liking to false chanterelles and mock anyone who tries to tell ‘em the real thing is better. I don't know what to think about such people.

            Anyway, when the wet season came around again I spent several weeks going over a lot of ground up around Mt. Tam, and what a time did I have. At first I'd drop by on my way back from work, but darkness often chased me home empty-handed. Occasionally, though, I did manage to find a few of the evanescent little beauties on those brief forays. Each time I found some I felt like I was being drawn toward to a deeper undstanding of chanterelles, maybe even to an understanding of their source, deep in the ground. Things only a true mycophile would know. So I decided to take a little vacation time -- OK, I won't lie; I took three weeks -- to get into some serious, full-time chanterelle-hunting.

            My tools were simple -- a few wax paper bags, a pocket knife, and my favorite field guide, a musty old thing I found in a second-hand bookstore.

            Although I didn't find much the first couple of days, I felt I was on the right trail and sure enough, I began to find a few, and then a few more. Eventually I found a motherlode -- a patch that seemed to have as many chanterelles as there are stars in the sky. Right there in a small clearing, far away from any of the trails, the earth sparkled with dozens of golden eruptions. I collected great quantities of the mushrooms for three full days. I ate so many chanterelles that I dreamed of flamingoes and wondered if my skin was going to change color. I sauteed my chanterelles in wine, and I sauteed them in butter. I sauteed them in teriyaki sauce, and I sauteed them in peach syrup.

            I sauteed them in ecstasy, in rapture, blissed to the core of my being.

            But my bliss was short-lived. During the next several days I found not so much as a single chanterelle. I had become obsessed with them by then, however, and I made the mistake of trying to describe chanterelles, and my quest to find their source, with my wife and with friends. None of them had tasted chanterelles. They had laughed at me for being so avid about a mere fungus! A worthless object, quite possibly poisonous, fit only for scorn. And now I couldn't find any to prove how good they were.

            I continued to read about them, especially accounts from others who experienced them as I did. I was able to find such stories going back to the dawn of civilization. Once I thought I overheard a group of strangers talking about chanterelles, but when I listened more closely I realized they were talking about store-bought button mushrooms.

            No matter how hard I looked, though, I couldn't find any more chanterelles, and I began to feel resentment toward them. I even ate button mushrooms for a while, figuring there must be some wisdom in following the herd.

            But that didn’t work. My life came to seem empty and vain. I took to sleeping in the woods on weekends so I could seek my quarry at first light and continue until dark. I crawled through merciless chaparral, my body slashed by multitudes of branches. Rattlesnakes buzzed me, a primordial sound, a call of death. I came down with a nasty cold and broke out with a furious rash of poison oak. Wood rats and field mice and millipedes and banana slugs and Jersusalem crickets and God-only-knows-what-else crawled over me while I slept on beds of leaves. I didn’t care. What were mere creature comforts next to a basket full of golden chanterelles?

            By and by I finally found a couple of the beauties way up a no-name canyon, on a slope covered with poison oak. I took them home and cooked them up, savoring each bite like it was my first.

            For the remainder of the wet season I found many chanterelles, but now instead of picking them, I would just sit with them. If I found a few under some leaves I'd just replace the leaves, lie down and keep company with them. Some nights I couldn't find any, but I didn't let it bother me. Almost as soon as I gave up trying to find them I'd sit down right next to one. Sometimes I'd stay there all night, curled up with my prize, and awake refreshed, cold dewdrops dappling my flesh.

            Halfway through one night, while a full moon was directly overhead, I awoke with a start to the yipping of a lone coyote. On the ground next to me I could see the golden hue of a freshly emerged chanterelle reflecting the moonlight. I moved closer to it and put my nose down near its base and inhaled its sweet aroma. I carefully brushed away some of the topsoil around it and uncovered the glistening mycelium. In that moment, everything lay revealed before me.

            I finally was able to settle back into the mundane world of home and work. I still love chanterelles, but I keep my enthusiasms to myself. When I do talk about them, I speak in metaphor, like a poet. I don’t need to sleep in the woods anymore to find my fill of chanterelles, either. Now I notice them pretty much anywhere. I’ve found them on scree slopes in the High Sierra and on sand dunes in the Mojave Desert. I’ve found them in downtown San Francisco and even under my desk where I work.

            May your world also be filled with chanterelles.

            Happy New Year.

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