There is at least one very good reason to love El Niño-drenched years. Yes, the heavy rains can wreak havok on everything from strawberries to greens, but one great by-product of repeated deluges is a finicky wild crop that thwarts efforts at cultivation and to this day is still foraged for in secrecy. If you've seen crates of chanterelles at your local market and wondered, hey, aren't they supposed to be rare? Well, yes. But this year is a slight exception.
Chanterelles have a hunky fleshy texture and a fruity aroma that is often likened to apricots. That's mostly true for chanterelles in other parts of the world, but the California crop only carries a hint of the scent. The California chanterelle — it was recently christened with its own G/s: Cantharellus californicus — is, in a word, huge. It's the largest chanterelle in the world: the cap, if left to its own devices, can span a full 30 cm. But they generally get picked or eaten by wildlife before then. They grow mostly in the drip lines of live oaks (and hunters beware of poison oak) along the Central coast and have a rich, egg color that deepens when treated in the recommended butter sauté. Though we've had pickled chanterelles that were pretty good too.
Connie Green, a 30-year veteran of mushroom hunting in northern California and author of The Wild Table (which isn't due out until October) says that this year's harvest volume is about on par with the El Niño years of 1982 and 83, though she says it isn't just the wetness that is spawning the bumper crops. “It's timing. It's getting heavy rains early and late in the season, not just one or two big rains.”
The usual chanterelle season runs from around October to March, but because of El Niño, we're likely to continue seeing large, aromatic boxes piled high with the golden loot for a little while yet. As it's a wild foraged crop, predictions on availability don't come easy. Other mushroom hunters, wildlife, access to coveted growing areas, and a slow growth habit all influence a vendor's ability to provide. At around $20 a pound, it's no bit player on the table.
Whatever you do, don't rinse them clean. Gently sweep off dirt and loam with a dry paper towel or a soft-bristled brush. It's also a good idea for you to know what a chanterelle should look like: its price instills not a little greed among foragers, and 'false chanterelles' (Hygrophoropsis aurantiaca) can crop up even in the most well-meaning of vendor's stalls. A true chanterelle is uniform in its color (the false one has a gradient from light to dark) and has gills running seamlessly all the way down the stem. That said, they are one of the easiest wild-foraged mushrooms to identify and farmers who know them and have access to their preferred habitat are happily sharing the wealth.