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Registered: 07/26/04
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It?s the state mushroom for a reason [OR]
    #4701006 - 09/23/05 04:34 PM (12 years, 5 months ago)

It?s the state mushroom for a reason
September 22, 2005 - portlandtribune.com

I glance over at the chopping board and do a double take. Is it my imagination, or have the mushrooms changed color?

No, it?s not just a trick of the light. The milky white insides of the chanterelles I sliced a few minutes ago are developing a saffron tinge that echoes their orange and yellow exteriors. I?ve been learning a lot about chanterelles lately, but I wasn?t expecting this chameleonlike trait. It?s pretty cool.

Oregon?s chanterelle harvest is big ? 500,000 pounds were collected in 1999, the year that the Pacific golden chanterelle was made the state?s official mushroom. Accurate statistics are hard to come by, because chanterelles grow only in the wild, brought to market by independent foragers and dealers who operate on a cash basis.

No one has found a way to cultivate them, even though they sprout up abundantly in many parts of the world. They are prized in European cuisine, so if you?re traveling, look for girolles in Italy and pfifferling in Germany.

Chanterelle season in the Northwest lasts through the fall and may run into December, depending on the rainfall.

Unlike most mushrooms, they are bright in color. The caps and stems are burnished orange, as if they had been dusted with rust powder, so they match the hue of autumn leaves. Lighter-colored and slightly more meaty white chanterelles also grow in Oregon.

Chanterelles are more or less trumpet shaped, with ruffled edges. Sometimes, in keeping with the season, they resemble tiny blown-out umbrellas.

Chefs like the flexibility of the mushrooms, which have a delicate character yet stand up well against stronger flavors.

Kevin Gibson, the chef and co-owner of Castagna (1752 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd.) explains: ?If you treat them lightly, they come through really nicely, but if you treat them heavier, with thyme and butter and shallots and cognac, adding more stuff, they still tend to come through.?

He adds, ?They?re meaty, definitely, but there?s something wispy about their perfume that I really like, that can be clobbered easily.?

In scent, chanterelles remind me, fleetingly, of popcorn. Some aficionados taste hints of apricot in their flavor, but I?m not able to pick that up. Like other mushrooms, what makes them distinct is too elusive to describe completely. Words like earthy, nutty and fruity are just approximations.

Not only that, but, as Gibson tells me, their character changes over the course of autumn.

?I think they change their profile both in texture and in smell,? he says. ?When they first start, they usually tend to be pretty small and really dry, and then as the season goes on, they get larger and wetter.?

At the beginning of the season he likes to pickle them, because they?re dry enough to absorb the liquid and also, ?they?re tiny and cute and precious and all that.?

Later on, when the rains begin, mushrooms come in from the forest with a lot of moisture. Gibson recommends laying them out on a cloth to dry before cooking with them. At Castagna, he leaves them spread out on trays in the walk-in cooler overnight. Then he cooks them in very hot clarified butter, to seal them. Chanterelles that aren?t treated properly can get stringy, slimy or gummy.

The menu at Castagna is constantly in flux, but look for chanterelles there served with pasta, as in a recent dish of cannelloni with chanterelles, spinach and Italian sheep milk ricotta. Gibson also uses them with cuts of meat, such as his grilled flatiron steak with chanterelle sauce, watercress and shoestring potatoes.

Chanterelles picked from Oregon?s coniferous forests actually are a distinct species from chanterelles that grow in eastern Canada and Europe. Scientists made this discovery only recently, which created the impetus for the official state mushroom designation.

Worthy as the chanterelle is, having an official state mushroom at all may seem silly. It does, however, bring public awareness to the unusual challenges of the foraging economy. Much collecting takes place on federal and state lands that are in the tug-of-war zone over where and how much timber should be harvested. Suffice it to say, fewer trees equals fewer mushrooms.

With my tiny percentage of this year?s crop (a half-pound from the downtown farmers market, where they?re going for $12 a pound), I learn two things: They can change before your eyes. And they make a lovely omelet.

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