If you were in Pittsburgh this summer, you probably noticed — and complained about — the rain. But while it may have spoiled your picnic plans, it also ensured a steady supply of coveted chanterelle mushrooms at local restaurants and markets.
"This was the largest bloom of chanterelles that I've seen in over a decade," says Tom Patterson, mycologist and forager for Lawrenceville's Wild Purveyors. Coupled with mild temperatures, the periodic moisture made this a banner year for the fungus.
Like many desirable items, chanterelles are elusive. They cluster on lightly graded hills with apt water. Retailing for nearly $22 per pound, golden chanterelles remain sought-after for their "meaty texture and distinct woodsy flavor," as well as for a regionally specific apricot scent when raw, says Chad Townsend, chef de cuisine for Salt of the Earth.
In past years, Salt's main mushroom-purveyors — Randy Danielson and son, Ryley — brought 15 pounds of chanterelles to the restaurant weekly. This summer, they arrived with almost 30.
Adding to the chanterelles' VIP status is the fact they are difficult to domesticate: "They're symbiotic with trees and dependent on their hosts for the fruiting of mushrooms," says Patterson.
That delicate system, coupled with increasing demand, means that foraging can easily become unsustainable if done incorrectly, warns Townsend. "Mushrooms have a very specific underground network," he says. "If you rip them out of the ground, it's really bad for them."
For foodies, the fun of chanterelles is their seasonality, so you'll have to hurry to catch them on menus at Salt, Casbah, Eleven and elsewhere. But even if you miss this year's crop, Wild Purveyors sell their preserved bounty in a dry chanterelle mushroom seasoning.
"[Chanterelles] are my favorite mushroom," says Townsend, "I love them any which way." Part of being a seasonally inspired chef, however, is appreciating a good thing without holding on too tightly. And Townsend, for one, is already awaiting the arrival of hen-of-the-woods and the other wild mushrooms coming this fall.