Treasure in the Woods
We set off across our neighbor's muddy field towards the woods, baskets in one hand, umbrellas in the other, with our retriever, Coffee Bean, bounding after us. We have come, as we do every summer, in search of the chanterelle—one of the hardiest of the wild mushrooms, known for its glorious golden color and preposterous fleshy shapes. It is only the first week of July (we usually don't gather until midmonth), but the spring's heavy rains have encouraged us. There's an old saying: When the weather is thunderous, chanterelles are numerous.
The most common of the edible chanterelles is Cantharellus cibarius, abundant in the northeastern United States from July to August. This variety can also be found in the Northwest and on the West Coast—as well as in Europe, where dogs are sometimes trained to sniff out their apricot-like scent. (But not here, in New York's Finger Lakes region; and not Coffee Bean, who scoots into the hedgerow, hunting rabbits.)
When my wife, Susan, and I first bought our summerhouse in tiny Mecklenburg, New York, nine miles from Cayuga Lake, our neighbor gave us permission to hike in the field next door and in the woods behind it. It was on an overcast day like today, years ago, that we came across the first chanterelles we'd ever seen. Their bold color stopped us in our tracks. We consulted our field guide to confirm their identity, then brought them home and sautéed them in butter, folding the fragrant mixture into eggs for what turned out to be the best omelette we'd ever had. One taste of our chanterelles—at once delicate and wild—and we were hooked.
Now we are beginning our 14th summer of foraging in these woods. As we enter the forest, the daylight instantly goes murky. From the thick canopy comes a thrumming drip, loud and insistent. The puddled path winds up a hill towards a stone mound that must have been a house or barn foundation when these woods were cleared sometime in the last century. Chanterelles are gregarious, growing in groups and returning to a favorable environment in precisely the same spot. In summers past we'd found them here in great number. As we near the mound, Susan suddenly stops. ''There'', she says. And there they are, pushing through dead leaves and patches of bright green moss: circles and whorls of gold—chanterelle crowns just pushing up, the wild and auric treasure for which we've come.