Sunday, October 11, 2009

Finding Gold Among the Pine Needles


Autumn in the Pacific Northwest. A stroll in the forest, sun filtering through flaming vine maple leaves. Cushy moss and thick beds of shedded needles under the Douglas Fir. Wind whispering, birds calling. And a great big basket of chanterelles!

It was my first time mushroom hunting. My long experience buying chanterelles at the farmers market helps--I'm familiar with the variety of shapes and shades in which they come, the intertwining ridges that run underneath the cap and down the stem, the way the caps invert into distorted rippling cups, the puckering and contortion of a mushroom that has forced its way up under a log.

The first few minutes of hunting was a little discouraging, as I heard shouts of discovery from someone following right in my footsteps, picking a luscious fungus I'd virtually stepped over. Soon I found a few and my senses sharpened, picking out that certain shade of yellow, a little brighter than fallen leaves. I began to spot them capped with pine needles, thrusting up a thick layer of duff. I found rich clusters of them, and I gasped as I circled my fingers around a stem and burrowed them around it, into the forest floor. Thick around as a broom handle! A twist, a pull, a trim with my Opinel knife, into the basket.

There were 40 of us, spreading out in the woods south of Mount Hood. Bark, a Mount Hood advocacy group, orchestrated the outing. We carpooled out of Portland and into the wilderness along logging roads, passing hunters and ATV enthusiasts before spilling out into the forest, baskets in hand. Mark DesMarets, an experienced fungal enthusiast, advised us about the specimens we might find and the ecology of the mushroom. Amazingly, 300,000 pounds of wild mushrooms are exported from Oregon annually.

In view of that number, my two-and-three-quarters pound of fragrant, golden chanterelles doesn't sound too impressive. But piled high in my basket, curving stems spreading to undulating crowns, I found them magnificent. Likewise, a few hours later when a handful of them issued their savory juices in my skillet, along with butter, leeks, garlic, thyme and creme fraiche... magnificent.