From Cityscape
9:53 am
Fri July 8, 2011

Sound Bites: Gourmet growing wild

As farmer’s market season hits its summer stride, fresh from the farm ingredients often take center stage.  But Missouri is also home to many wild ingredients, which are highly sought after by area chefs, and in many cases next to impossible to cultivate. 

In the first of a new series called Sound Bites, created in partnership with Sauce Magazine, producer Libby Franklin goes into the woods with forager Ryan Maher, owner of Missouri Wild Edibles.

The forager code

 It was the first day of summer, the longest day of the year, and Ryan Maher was taking me somewhere.  

“There’s kind of code among mushroom people or foragers that you don’t really say it,” Maher said. 

Most foragers keep their favorite spots as closely guarded secrets, so I’ll just say this: We were headed out of town on a reconnaissance mission.  I’d heard of morel mushrooms—but morel season had ended with the spring.  We were on the lookout for chanterelle mushrooms.  Maher suspected that the warm, wet June could have inspired the first few to, in mushroom speak, “pop.”

“So we’re going out,” Maher said. “This time of year, we want to look for southeast facing hillsides, as the mushrooms start coming out in areas where it’s a little warmer. So they’ll get the majority of the sun for the day.”

A serendipitous discovery

Maher’s knowledge of indigenous Missouri mushrooms can only be described as encyclopedic, but he hasn’t always been a mushroom person.  He took his first job in the local food industry over 15 years ago, as a teen, and he’s since worked all over town, alongside many of the region’s best chefs.  Maher said he wasn’t even looking for chanterelles the first time he spotted one.

“I was out mountain biking and I stopped,” Maher said. “And had I not worked in kitchens, I probably wouldn’t have realized what these were.  But yeah, I stopped and there were these gorgeous orange mushrooms everywhere.  I kind of looked at it was kind of like, ‘Man, is that the thing I’ve cleaned in the kitchens?’”

It was. It was a smooth chanterelle, famous in the culinary world for its sweet fragrance and firm texture.  It was also the beginning of a new obsession. 

We hiked for 20 minutes or so before we saw any mushrooms, but we saw all sorts of other edible things I would have otherwise walked right past: chive flowers, wild raspberries and wood sorrel. 

A creek, a ridge and some thick vegetation away from any sort of “beaten path” we finally spotted something resembling a mushroom. Maher immediately identified it as a coral mushroom and began cutting.

“You can see how much moisture is in this though…,” Maher said as he  squeezed the water from the fungi.

The difference between delicious and danger

According to Maher, coral mushrooms are pretty tasty, but have been known to give people digestive problems, which brings up the question on the mind of every city gal on her first foray: How can one be absolutely positive that the wild mushroom that has you dreaming of risotto won’t be your last?

“It’s difficult because most mushrooms will change a lot in color and appearance, based on precipitation and environment,” Maher said. “You know, a lot of people pick a mushroom up, look at a book, and think they got it, and that’s where a lot of misidentification comes from.”

Maher proceeded to begin explaining an identification process called “spore printing,” but stopped short – he saw something special.

“These are the chanterelles,” Maher said, and then paused. “Sorry, I’ve waited a whole year for this.”   

We dropped to our knees and proceeded carefully. 

Part of what makes the smooth chanterelle found in the Midwest such a special mushroom is its symbiotic relationship with living trees, usually oaks. The mushrooms are the visible part of the plant, but underground there is the mycelium—the part of the plant that does all the work and gets none of the glory.

The mycelium forms a spongy sock around the tree roots and helps the host tree retain moisture and absorb minerals.  In return, the tree provides the mushroom with sugars and amino acids. This has been an excellent survival strategy,but it’s also made them quite difficult to reproduce commercially. 

In fact, the only person to ever successfully cultivate a chanterelle tried for more than eight years.  His yield?  One mushroom.

Sharing the harvest

This hillside, though, was covered in them, hundreds of tiny, bright orange chanterelles.  We gathered a few for supper and left the rest.  Ryan made plans to return later in the week to harvest, and on the way home, started spreading the word.

His first call was to chef Adam Gnau of Acero in Maplewood:

Maher to Gnau: “Adam!  Catch you at a bad time?  Oh, nice.  Hey, chanterelles are up. Yeah, I haven’t really checked out the price, I’m sure it’s high, but I just wanted to kind of put the word out and let you know….yeah, I know, it does mean that summer’s here, doesn’t it?” 

Three days later, Maher’s truck pulled up behind Acero.  It was a sweaty Friday afternoon and Ryan had come straight from his spot with about five pounds of the very first chanterelles of the season. 

As we walked into the restaurant, Gnau already had plans for Maher’s bounty:

Gnau said that he loves chanterelles – so much so that Maher’s delivery would change all the specials for the night.

“I think Missouri has some of the best chanterelles ever,” Gnau said. “If you want to spend the money, you  can get them from Europe early in the season. But they’re not as good as what we have here.  And…they get shipped around and held for days and days. These are nice because they’re, you know, fresh out of the woods.”

Diners that night had chanterelles with salmon, chanterelles with pasta, chanterelles all by themselves.

So, how long do St. Louis eaters have to take advantage of Chanterelle season?

“As long as it’s hot, sticky, and wet, they’re out,” Maher said.

In other words, you have plenty of time.

Ryan Maher is profiled by writer Ligaya Figueras in this month’s Sauce Magazine. This installation of our new series Sound Bites was inspired by Ligaya’s writing.