Thursday, October 4, 2007

Chanterelles in September (better late than never)

Much has happened in the almost two months that I've neglected the blog. Too much to write about. Still, I'll play a little catch-up.

Several weeks ago, my brother-in-law showed up at our house with a brown bag full of chanterelles he and his wife had harvested here and there around town. I'd seen the things growing over the past couple of years, never sure enough of their identity to risk eating one. Imagine my joy (ecstacy!) in learning that they are the lovely, rare treat that I'd hoped. And not so rare, it turns out. Chanterelles are fairly abundant, available cross-country to those who are patient enough to wait for their season and confident enough to harvest and eat them. Over the last several weeks, I've enjoyed them in pasta, on home-made rosemary focaccia ( great recipe from Barenbaum's The Bread Bible), and in a chanterelle tart.

Chanterelles are fragile. Last year I was shopping for mushrooms for Thanksgiving dinner, and saw them at "The Fresh Market," squashed, dried out and battered enough to make me want to spit fire at their handlers. What a waste! There's no comparison between just picked, carefully harvested chanterelles and the abused offerings at the supermarket. For those who aren't interested in picking and eating wild fungi, I found extraordinary, pristine specimens for $5/ brown bag at Lake Ella. You may have to wait for next year. On the other hand, chanterelles are still to be found in these first days of October. I've been watching a cluster of them by a live-oak in my neighborhood, and new ones are still popping up. Urban roadside, they're in the fire of dog-pee, urban stormwater runoff, and chemical runoff from the golf-course, so there they stay, an untouched indicator that their likes are to be found in cleaner places.

Although mushrooms tend to pop up during/ after rainy spells, they are best harvested when they are not actually wet. After a good rain, chanterelles can be spongy with excess water, which makes them more perishable. They're also harder to clean if they're wet. It is best not to wash most mushrooms. Harvest from unpolluted areas if possible, and simply brush gently with a paint or pastry brush or wipe with terry-cloth to clean.

After a couple of weeks of eating chanterelles harvested by others and doing lots of internet research, I got up the courage to forage for them with my family. If you're going to do it, do your homework first, and don't forget (silly me) to bring your long pants and real shoes (not flip flops), maybe even some gloves. We negotiated plenty of poison ivy and brier for these lovely morsels.

Chanterelle ramblings from my journal....
I thought about chanterelles, fungi, the food chain. Foraging for chanterelles was exhilarating, freeing, but made me undeniably anxious. So many fungi are poisonous; their position on the food chain is with other smaller life-forms that can have a grim power over us. They feed on and fuel decay. They can cause sickness and death. Finding and eating a wild mushroom, even with certainty of its identity, forces a reversal of natural order, challenges nature. It is easy to think of fungi as organisms at the bottom of the food chain, but they are not. Plants are at the bottom of the food chain. Their energy comes from the sun. Fungi are at the top of the food chain – their energy comes from life all the way up the food chain, from the bottom to the top. They, along with bacteria and other microorganisms, are responsible for recycling the food chain. When I asked a friend who lives down the street from me if she’d been harvesting chanterelles in our neighborhood, she said that she hadn’t. A friend of hers was an expert, an avid mushroom hunter, who made a fatal mistake.

A lot of people think I’m an over-protective mother. I’m so wary of danger, of dire natural consequence. I disclose in order to you give the sense of the surety I needed in order to gather, and then eat, chanterelles. I did not harvest or eat without surety. Yet, my child did not eat the mushrooms with us. I’d read about look-alikes (Jack of the Wood or Jack-o-lantern) that cause excruciating sickness but not death. Another look-alike, the false chanterelle, was generally described as disappointing and mildly disagreeable. A suddenly orphaned child would be almost as tragic as a dead child, but my findings suggested that we might be awfully sickened, but not killed, by a mistake. So with “almost surety,” the parents ate the Chanterelles and the child had none. The day after, and the day after, our bodies did not protest.

Weeks after I wrote these thoughts down, I finally began reading Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma. In the final section of his book, he talks about foraging (The first two sections are devoted to agriculture). Chanterelles are one of the first organisms he encounters in his foray into hunting and gathering. He says it all, and he says it so much better. The book is so compelling, so affirming to my gradual, intuitive transition from global supermarket gourmand to Slow Foodie. It is hard to imagine someone reading the book and continue on with life (eating) unchanged. Yet, never in my life have I been “sold” by someone else’s words. Would I have changed my way of living if I’d not already been firmly on the road to doing so? I’ve talked with scores of people who read the fascinating and frightening Fast Food Nation (I haven’t read it), who still frequent fast food restaurants several times a week!

SO, there's a bit of catching up. Also noteworthy, although the cooler weather has not settled in, the market says otherwise. COOL SEASON GREENS ARE HERE!!! They started to arrive a few weeks ago -- lettuces, asian greens, mustards. Arugula, which seems to be around all year, is especially good now. Also potatoes and sweet potatoes, sand pears, the first persimmons of the season, herbs, potted herbs for winter's garden, some chestnuts. Eggs with carrot-orange yolks. Honey. Sprouts. Garlic....

So much has happened. Great pie! Pigs, cows, chest freezers. Pork at New Leaf. Steep acceleration of my own personal learning curve in the world of sustainability. Hoping to move permanently away from Publix SOON. So, there's my catching up. Now maybe I can resume my previous pace.

LOTS of October and November events for the Tallahassee foodshed, by the way.


foodieB said...

fantastic post! i agree on so many points -- many of which are difficult to articulate.

you found chantarelles at lake ella?? i have never seen them there! we used to get precious bags from chef-friends back home (seattle) and miss them quite a lot. i have never foraged them, but H did a lot growing up.

thanks for sharing.

downtown guy said...

One summer in Vermont, when I was 15 or 16, I picked a giant basket full of chanterelles. I cooked them in a pan with a little butter and garlic, then used the drippings and some flour to make a little mushroom gravy. Creamed chanterelles on toast! I still think about that meal happily.

juancho said...

Imagine my surprise when mere contact with chanterelles sent me running for a little bush privacy.

Upon further research, some of us are quite allergic to them in a gastro-intestinal way.

Tried it twice, wasn't pretty.

Food and Brew Love said...

I hope it wasn't on account of me. Yikes! What made you try it the second time?

My mother mentioned that my dad has an unpleasant reaction to many edible "wild" or cultivated "exotic" mushrooms. Perhaps you both have better built in survival mechanisms than the rest of us.

Gabriela said...

Lots of Chanterelles in the woods right now! I picked a bagful in Kouky Park today!

Food and Brew Love said...

Gabriela! I think it was in Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan talked about people on the West Coast carefully (ferociously even) guarding their favorite mushrooming spots. Lets hope that people around here don't catch on too quickly ;).

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