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On the Chanterelle Trail

For those in the know, the local backcountry holds a cachet of gastronomic delights.

By Lisa Snider

 

ut in the backcountry of the Los Padres National Forest, a hunter stalks his prey with a quiet determination and a fierce resolve. Armed only with a pocket knife and a canvas bag to stow his harvest, the hunter is careful to hide all traces of his exploits. As soon as he is home with his prize, he cleans it meticulously and tosses the flesh into a hot pan then devours every morsel.

“It’s so good with just butter and salt on toast,” says hunter Tim Lindemann. “A hint of white wine is good, too,” adds fellow hunter Will Silver.

Lindemann and Silver are among a handful of avid hunters—mushroom hunters—who forage the oaks of the Los Padres for the ultimate prize: the coveted chanterelle mushroom. Cultivated varieties aren't nearly as good as the untamed fungi that are hunted down in the wild. Some are stolen from the Los Padres, and some are taken with permission by permitted commercial collectors then sold to local restaurants. But many are harvested by hobbyists like Lindemann and Silver, who make friends and family swoon when they come home with scrumptious chanterelles.

The chanterelle is a trumpet-shaped, firm, fleshy, symbiotic root fungus that grows locally on the roots of oak trees. Their season runs from fall to spring, usually following a decent rainstorm. According to Dr. Steve Norris, a local natural history authority and lecturer for California State University Channel Islands, the best place to find mushrooms is in the backcountry. "You've got to get in the forest where there is moisture in the soil," says Norris. 

Lindemann, a 34-year-old Santa Barbara native, picked his first mushroom when he was 10. An avid outdoorsman, he knows every nook and cranny of the coastal mountain backcountry of Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties. As a graduate of UC Santa Cruz, with a bachelor’s degree in biology, he spent a fair amount of time learning mycology, the study of fungi.

Despite his years of study, he is also keenly aware of the dangers that come with picking mushrooms. “There is always some risk to wild mushroom collecting,” says Lindemann. Recoun-ting the stories of the genus Amanita, also known as the “death cap,” he explains this is a variety that has killed mushroom experts the most often. This is why he sticks with the chanterelle—because of all the wild mushrooms available in our area, it is the easiest to recognize. “It has very identifiable characteristics.”

The chanterelle doesn’t have gills like those you’d find on the underside of a portabello; they have wrinkles. Also, they don’t have pores, which are typical with Boletus varieties such as porcinis, nor do they have a cap like you’d see on traditional grocery store varieties. In the wild, they are most easily found atop the roots of oak trees, usually buried under the leaves. The only clue might be a tiny orange lip peeking out. Closer inspection, however, may reveal an entire patch.

“It’s kind of like an Easter egg hunt,” says Lindemann.

But this is a variety shrouded in secrecy. The rich, dense flavor and limited availability of chanterelles contributes to prices running anywhere from $25 to $40 per pound. Hunters keep their hunting grounds in the strictest confidence, because, as Lindemann says, “They tend to come up at the same place every year.”

So why not capitalize on their finds? For one thing, Lindemann says, “Selling is a bit tricky.” Anything more than a handful requires a permit, and when taken in larger quantities a collector’s license is required. Another challenge with wild mushroom collecting is finding them—which usually entails a pretty ambitious hike. And after hours on the trail, there are no guarantees, as the chanterelle can be elusive. But the biggest challenge is cleaning them and either getting them on the table immediately, or freezing them after they’ve been cooked and all the moisture has been forced out. Chanterelles are highly perishable, and getting them to market is extremely labor intensive.

“It’s somewhat of a time sensitive thing,” explains Silver, a full-time landscape contractor who grew up with Lindemann. “Yeah, and we both have day jobs!” adds Lindemann, a full-time glass artist.

But you don’t have to hike for miles in the backcountry or risk misidentifying a potentially toxic mushroom for the opportunity to feast on the chanterelle, because we’re coming into the season when local restaurants will have them on special. Tim Kilcyone, the chef at The SideCar Restaurant in Ventura, is a big fan of wild chanterelles. “They’re actually one of my favorite mushrooms,” he says, “the flavor of them, the earthiness. Because they’re wild and not cultivated, you have to wait for the perfect temperature and the rain.” Their limited availability makes it all the more special for Kilcyone, who can’t resist when someone shows up at his back door with chanterelles for sale.

“They’re great with a big red wine, a Cab or a Bordeaux,” he says. So next time you see the storm clouds gathering, pour yourself a glass and get ready!

Do not eat wild mushrooms unless they have been identified by an expert and cooked.

10-01-07

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