When we purchased our Wisconsin land we knew we were getting several dozen long-neglected apple trees, and maybe a couple of plums. We didn't know quite how generally fruitful the land would turn out to be. The raspberries and black caps were delicious though not especially abundant. We're watching grapes slowly ripen on the vine, lots of those. There's a nannyberry bush (also called "wild raisin" and black haw) which will provide a new wild treat next month--if the birds don't get to them first. The birds are welcome to whatever they can find: they are one of the great delights of the land, and they consume a lot of potentially troublesome bugs, as well.
But what we have in spades right now (befitting their inky hue), is blackberries. Big, fat, juicy, sweet blackberries. One morning this week, in the midst of preparing to return to the city, I discovered a burgeoning patch just down the hill from where our new cabin sits. They'd been hiding in plain sight, and we had walked right past them, somehow, on our way to pick berries on another hillside, berries that went into a breakfast of french toast and apple syrup.
I planned to stop at a favorite foraging spot on the way home (that's where the gold comes in) so I didn't want to let the morning slip by in the berry patch. I set the timer on my watch for fifteen minutes, and I made my leisurely way through a section of the patch, plucking the biggest berries from the tops of the canes, enjoying a few in the process. When I got home I found that my fifteen minute harvest was nearly a pound-and-a-half of berries.
I closed up the cabin and drove to my favorite mushroom woods. This is chanterelle time, if the mushrooms decide to cooperate. Two years ago I found pounds of chanterelles in these woods; last year I found not a one. I was a little late to the woods this year, and found quite a few mushrooms a bit dried, mud-splashed, or bug-bit. I pick them all, regardless, and make the best of them. If we get some much-needed rain there may be another burst of them--I've found them into October in past years.
Chanterelles are my favorite mushroom, and one of my favorite foods, period. Part of it goes back to my sheer joy and amazement at first discovering them in a local woods, four years ago, I think it was. Seeing those glimpes of gold in the leaf duff induces a sort of "forager's high," an exhilaration hard to describe. And then the hunt is on, and you rarely find just one chanterelle, their habits being generally "gregarious," as mycologists put it, which makes them seem not just abundant but fun and sociable, as well.
And part of it is the aroma of freshly picked chanterelles, which is often described as being like that of apricots, but which also reminds me of raw squash or pumpkin, of sweet corn meal, of berries, a bit. But what they really smell like is chanterelles, an aroma I find so enticing that I have to lift each and every chanterelle I pick up to my nose, to take in that scent at its most potent. For this reason, and others, it takes a long time to pick a modest portion of chanterelles.
And part of it, of course, is that they are delicious. Better than morels, to me, more subtle and yet more potent at the same time. I've tasted truffles and fresh cepes, but I would take chanterelles over either of those esteemed, expensive fungi. Simple is best in preparing them (though in that abundant year I recall a dish of lobster and chanterelles in espelette cream sauce that went down pretty nicely). Saute gently in butter and serve with a plain omelet of good fresh eggs. A splash of cream at the end won't hurt them, and then you nap that over toast points and indulge. A nice light burgundy like a mercurey, or another pinot noir wine on the fruity side, that would be my choice to accompany them. In a white I might go for a dry vouvray, a pouilly-fume, or a pinot gris. That's a little academic: the 'shrooms are the thing.
I love foraging. I have always loved just wandering around in the woods, and when one is able to bring home rare and exquisite things to eat in the process, I wonder why everyone isn't doing it. At the same time, it can be really hard work, and until you're lucky enough to find a chanterelle woods, or a haunt of morels, or a stand of hen-of-the-woods-harboring oaks, you need to enjoy walking around in the woods finding nothing whatever of note or delectation.
Even the blackberries, obvious and abundant as they are, extract a price. Their thorns are the most wicked of all the brambly berries, like pointy razors, and no matter how careful you are, you are going to get a little torn up picking blackberries. My dogs are wirehaired hunters built for just this sort of terrain--grouse and woodcock favor thick and thorny coverts--and I have heard them yelp in pain when a blackberry thorn caught a nose or ear.
And as for the mushrooms: It would take any number of plates of lobster and chanterelles in cream sauce to replace the calories I burn off trudging up and down the hills of my favorite chanterelle woods. I'm in long pants and long sleeves for this outing, as well, since I have to go through thorn bushes and nettles on the way, and it's August. I am sweating profusely, and twisting my ankles on steep and rocky terrain, straining my foggy eyes for a glimpe of yellow in the oak leaves. There is a lake down below me, and I can hear the slap-slap-slap of motorboats bouncing over the waves. From the swimming beach I hear splashing and laughing; the voices of the children sound like happy geese from this distance. I stop on the rocky slope and think: What is wrong with you, slogging around this dismal dark woods, drenched in sweat, exhausted, looking for bizarre organisms that live underground and feed on decaying leaves and wood? Why can't you be a sane and normal person, out there enjoying the sun and breeze and water on a beautiful summer's day, getting a tan, taking a cool dip when you please?
Then looking up the hill I see something glimmer gold: could be a leaf, or just a trick of the light, but no, that tone, that density of yellow is unmistakable. Who needs beaches when you've got chanterelles?
Text and photos copyright Brett Laidlaw 2008