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Monday, September 23, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Fall sees gourmets foraging in the forest

Seattle Times staff reporter

Deep in the sweet-smelling forest duff, a succulent treasure glows: the lovely chanterelle.

Herald of autumn, chanterelles define the season. Defiant of cultivation, they are a delicacy only the forest can create, a delectable delight available only until deep frost.

Those in the know watch Indian summer skies not with bittersweet longing, hoping the sun will hold, but with impatience. The avid mushroomer is rooting for rain and those first cool mornings when the air is once again full and fecund with the scent of earth.

The rains bring the first flush of flute-shaped, apricot-scented chanterelles, which some chefs consider the finest mushroom of all.

Not a plant but a fungus, chanterelles will not survive or reproduce outside the forest. In these parts, Doug fir forests from 60 to 100 years old are prime chanterelle country, especially if salal is also present, and a little sword fern, but not too much. Chanterelles demand a true forest in all its complexity.

Not that anyone will tell you just where, exactly, to look. Mushroomers guard their productive troves with the caution usually reserved for favorite fishing holes, campgrounds or free parking spots.

David Hunt of Seattle, a gourmet cook and a chanterelle sleuth for 30 years, has a secret spot near Monroe — he forbids disclosure of a more precise location — that can serve up two five-gallon buckets heaped with chanterelles in a single visit.

On his first foray of the season, he stalks the firs, then freezes, his eyes sweeping the ground as if hunting for a particular book on a shelf. He strolls again, pretending to be casual, just as happy to enjoy the woods as to find a mushroom. But the first find betrays the true soul of the pot hunter, as those who hunt for the table call themselves.

"My God, I'm stepping on them everywhere!" he shouts.

Amid the soft fluff of moss and fragrant forest soil the chanterelles shine, a golden sunset of soft shapes. Hunt drops to his knees and cuts the mushrooms from the ground with a knife to avoid yanking or damaging them.

They are small, even buttons. The big ones, fat around as a cheeseburger bun, come later in the season.

The chanterelle is the fruit of the mycelium, or vegetative portion of the mushroom that grows under ground. The mycelium is prompted to fruit by the fall rains and cool temperatures. It won't fruit all at the same time.

The cap of the mushroom is where the action is, and not only for cooks. Beneath it are gills, or in the case of the chanterelle, ridges where the spores essential to reproduction are produced.

The stem elevates the cap high enough from the forest floor for the spores to be airborne as they drop from the gills and land on the forest floor to begin a new colony.

A mushroom cap cut from the stem, placed on a piece of paper and left covered with a bowl overnight will leave a fairy dust that traces the delicate shapes of the gills: a spore print. The spores can be pink, yellow, brown and even colorless.

Susceptible to ultraviolet radiation, they won't germinate well in the sunshine. Chanterelles are primarily creatures of the canopy floor.

Harvesting every chanterelle in a patch does no harm, any more than picking every apple on the tree will hurt future crops. Each mushroom produces millions of spores, so harvesting bucketfuls still won't wipe out a grove. It takes a clear-cut to do that.

Chanterelles exist in a mutually beneficial relationship with conifers. Trees with chanterelles at their feet are healthier than those without them. Fire will stimulate the growth of mushrooms as long as it doesn't kill the tree, because fire stimulates the tree to send out new roots.

The microscopic threadlike fibers of the fungus in the forest floor and top layer of soil reach in between the cells of the cortex, or outer layer of the tree's roots, enabling the tree and fungus to exchange nutrients.

The tree sends sugars to its roots that the mushroom cannot make for itself, because it has no chlorophyll, the green chemical in leaves that enables them to make food.

In return, the mushroom helps feed nitrogen and trace minerals — food the tree needs, said Robert Edmonds, professor of soil microbiology in the college of forest resources at the University of Washington.

Much of the precise relationship between the fungi, the soil and the forest is mysterious.

"All these organisms are related to each other, and we really don't understand it all," Edmonds said.

The mycelium lies dormant in the soil even after the mushrooms die back in a killing frost. While active in the spring and early summer, the fungus slows down as the weather dries, and won't kick into high gear to fruit again until fall.

Easy to identify and enjoy

There are 2,000 species of fungi associated with Douglas fir alone, and the soil teems with countless others.

The world's largest living thing, in terms of area, is believed to be Armillaria ostovae, a fungus that preys on tree roots.

Washington, Oregon, and Michigan have all traded claim in the past decade for hosting the largest specimen, including a beauty near Glenwood, Klickitat County, that covers several square miles, Edmonds said.

Scientists sampling the tissues of the fungus sprawling underground found the same DNA, indicating a find of one humongous fungus.

But oddity is the norm in an underground kingdom replete with fanciful fruits and their names: American slippery cap, old-man-of-the-woods, hairy sawgill and soft stumpfoot, not to mention the velvet-foot and naked brimcaps, stinky squid and golden fairy helmet.

Chanterelles are among the easiest mushrooms to identify, and they can be found even in Seattle.

Lynn Havsaüll, a naturalist at Camp Long, reports finds at Seward Park. Any park with big Doug firs is worth a look, she advises. Another advantage: The chanterelle doesn't resemble any toxic look-alikes.

In a pan with just a hint of fresh tarragon and glaze of butter, the amber and golden colors of the chanterelle intensify. For aficionados, the sweet, nutty flavor of Cantharellus cibarius perfects any dish.

A committed forager, Hunt lines his kitchen with jars of wild mushrooms from every season. He's even devised a homemade brew of vodka and chanterelles that makes for a startling first sip.

Asked if he ever buys mushrooms at the store, he has a one-word answer: "What?!"

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com.

Natural Wonders appears every other Monday.

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