PROSPECT — Brian Winkler pushes past some fruiting Oregon grape trying to follow his nose toward the golden fungi prize of the fall forest.
Chanterelle mushrooms are close by, for sure. But where?
“Ooh, I can smell them. Smell that?” says Winkler of Medford.
Finally, rhinal gives way to visual when Winkler spies one fine chanterelle gurgling from beneath a downed Douglas fir tree. Then another and another until he cuts five chanterelles, all over a half-pound apiece, from around the log, each one a victim of its own aroma.
“Yeah, I smell them before I see them,” Winkler says. “I’m your truffle dog out here in the woods.”
Chanterelle hunting has come early and often to Southern Oregon forestlands this year for those looking at the calendar, but those with a nose for the forest know they probably were right on time.
Late summer rains that snuffed out a very mild wildfire season jump-started the fall chanterelle season close to a month earlier than last year, when dry and hot weather triggered a later fruiting of these forest delicacies.
“You can make a correlation with the rains and the fungi, but you’re just guessing. You don’t really know,” says Wayne Rolle, a retired Forest Service botanist and mushroomer leading a mushroom hike Sunday for the Siskiyou Chapter of the Native Plant Society of Oregon.
“There have been other years with early September rains and not a lot of mushrooms,” Rolle says. “But this year it definitely started early, and it’s a great year to go out and enjoy the mushrooms.”
The forest is awash in fall fungi, and a favorite target of mushroom hunters of all levels of experience are chanterelles because of their fine taste, the relative ease of finding them and the lack of look-alikes that pose potentially serious health risks.
Chanterelles thrive in the deep duff of old-growth Doug fir forests, but they can also pop up in logged areas, on game trails or at the edges of pastures. Because of their vase-like shape, golden color and lack of gills, they are easy to identify if you know what you’re looking for.
Most are yellow with smooth caps — except for cream-colored white chanterelles — making them relatively easy to differentiate from lookalikes such as scaly and woolly chanterelles, which have scaly or fuzzy caps.
To find chanterelles, look for specks of gold pushing through the forest floor. Gently pull back the duff and find your prize.
Often chanterelles literally come up under foot, with an accidental drag of a heel exposing the fungus.
In the Cascades, chanterelles are commonly found from about 4,000 feet above sea level to as high as 6,000 feet. They start popping up first at higher elevations and work their way down later in the season. The hunt in the Cascades doesn’t really end until snowfall covers them. Chanterelles are also prevalent in coastal forests, and in some areas can be found within earshot of the surf.
For Winkler, it’s more a case of following his nose.
He’s picked chanterelles for well over a decade, and over time he has acquired an aromatic relationship with the fungi.
“I’ve cleaned enough in the sink that when you’re playing with them and cooking them you really recognize a distinct odor, almost like an apricot,” Winkler says. “I think that’s one of the nice things about them. They have such a floral or fruity component that goes so well with food.”
While most mushroom hunters carry baskets to keep from bruising their quarry, Winkler hunts with a cloth bag that he keeps closed so the picked chanterelles don’t throw off a false scent.
This year’s crop has been rich enough that Winkler can afford to be picky.
Only the larger and cleaner chanterelles get introduced to his pocketknife blade that separates mushroom from stem.
“I like picking the nice and clean ones,” Winkler says. “It saves a bunch of time on the back end in your kitchen sink.”
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or email@example.com