They’re adored by chefs around the world and commonly found in the wild, so why don’t we hear more about golden chanterelles? Nevin Martell takes to Vancouver Island in search of this often overlooked fungi.
We’re lost but we don’t care, because we’re striking gold. Not the literal precious metal—I mean, golden chanterelle mushrooms. Found only in the wild, the fetching trumpet-shaped fungi with an aureate-apricot hue are highly prized by chefs around the world for their rich nutty flavor and peach-scented aroma. Some even hold them in the same high regard as truffles or morels.
They were a staple for French nobility in the 18th century, and were a regular feature in palace kitchens. Now, fungi fanboys and girls love their versatility—they can be sautéed and tossed with pasta; preserved as conserves or pickles; transformed into a luxuriant gravy; baked into a quiche; or pureed into soup. The only boundary is the cook’s imagination.
We’re looking for the cherished mushrooms in the middle of a second growth forest (that is, a forest that’s regrown after a timber harvest) in the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District on the southern side of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, sandwiched between the sea and the isle’s largest freshwater lake.
I’m tagging along with Ian Riddick, chef of the hyper-locally focused Heartwood Kitchen in nearby Ucluelet, a rusticated seaside town that epitomized the area’s friendly frontier vibe. Bearded and burly, Riddick moves through the forest with an ursine grace, his head on a constant swivel as he scours the area for other edibles—salmon berries, chicken of the woods mushrooms, and red huckleberries.
So far, we’ve collected nearly half a pound of chanterelles. Not bad for less than an hour’s work. But as we make our way down the slender path that had taken us into the wildwood and then petered out, we lose our way. Gazing in every direction, all I can see was a mosaic of fertile greens—fern fronds, carpets of fuzzy moss and stubborn undergrowth.
This late August morning is cool and damp enough to warrant wearing long sleeves, while pants are a necessity to keep off the ticks. After clambering up hills, tightrope walking along meager ridges, getting down in the dirt to peer under fallen logs, and fording a more-mud-than-water creek, I’m soaked to the bone and splotched with earthy patches. But I couldn’t care less.
The feeling of finding wild mushrooms is akin to the thrill of discovering Easter eggs as a child, an electrifying primal high that zings right through you.
“I think we should backtrack to the stream,” Riddick says. “We can probably find our way to the car from there.” I mumble a half-hearted agreement; more concerned with keeping a lookout for more prizes for the wicker basket Riddick was carrying.
Early in the expedition, my ‘mushroom eyes’ had kicked in. “That’s when your eyes get acclimated to spotting mushrooms,” Riddick explains. “You could walk by a hundred of them, but after you see one, you can’t stop seeing them.”
The feeling of finding wild mushrooms is akin to the thrill of discovering Easter eggs as a child, an electrifying primal high that zings right through you. I scored our first catch of the day and had been in dogged pursuit of more treasures since.
If you know where to look, chanterelles are actually one of the easiest species to find, but popular wisdom says that amateur foraging—while noble in intent—is not recommended. It’s best for beginners to secure the services of their own Riddick-esque foraging aficionado, lest they take a bite of a toxic chanterelle imposter.
False chanterelles, known as Jack-o’-lanterns, look remarkably similar to genuine chanterelles – they’re similarly colored and shaped. Though these doppelgangers are technically edible, eating them could result in some not-so-nice gastrointestinal issues.
Riddick likes sautéing whole chanterelles in butter and putting them on a flatbread with béchamel and parmesan cheese, or making them into a vegetarian pâté.
Aha! I catch glimpse of another vibrant patch of golden orange amidst the verdant tones of the woods. A pair of mushrooms defiantly sprouted up from the tangle of twigs and moss, which still kept them somewhat concealed. It was as if the chanterelles were simultaneously fighting to flourish yet wishing to stay hidden. “Here’s another cluster,” I couldn’t help myself shouting.
Leaning down, I use the John Deere pocketknife Riddick lent me to gently slice the stems, my other hand gently cradling the caps so they don’t tumble onto the ground and get damaged by the fall. You have to be very careful with wild mushrooms—they’re temperamental creatures.
Golden chanterelles will start popping a couple of days after a good rain, starting roughly at the end of August and running through the autumn in British Columbia when there are warm days and cooler nights. They love moisture, they’re partial to shade, and they have a fondness for hardwood trees. This forest and the weather were creating the perfect crucible for them to bloom in.
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“You’re here at the perfect time,” Riddick tells me as I deposit my finds in his basket.
He would know. Now 46, Riddick became a self-proclaimed “wild food enthusiast” when he moved to British Columbia in the early 1990s. The Toronto-born chef remembers foragers knocking on the back doors of the kitchens he was working in, offering up wild mushrooms and berries for sale. “I was paying a relatively steep markup for their time and effort,” he says, “but then realized that these were things in my own backyard.”
He bought a copy of Audubon’s mushroom field guide and began taking it out on hikes, where he would keep his eyes peeled for wild mushrooms, berries, herbs, fruits, and botanicals. It took him nearly a decade to work up the confidence and courage to eat one of his finds—a golden chanterelle mushroom.
In 2012, he landed a gig at Long Beach Lodge Resort in in nearby Tofino, where he worked for nearly six years before opening Heartwood Kitchen in June. His homespun eatery, right on the main roadway running through the small village of Ucluelet, is a heart-on-sleeve homage to Vancouver Island.
The mushrooms we’ve been finding will be appearing shortly on his menu, because they’re best enjoyed within five days of been reaped. Riddick likes sautéing whole chanterelles in butter and putting them on a flatbread with béchamel and parmesan cheese, or making them into a vegetarian pâté punctuated with toasted walnuts or pecans.
We spend a little while longer looking for gold and get lucky a few more times. Then we trace the stream’s meandering path through the woods until we spotted the trail that would lead us back to Riddick’s car.
By this point, we have a pound of freshly foraged mushrooms in the basket. I’m exhilarated. Sure, we’ve been lost. But just look at what we’ve found.